Who said video game movie adaptations are always bad? Uncharted, Silent Hill, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Warcraft: The Beginning… Many feature films, some of them unjustly forgotten or shunned, brilliantly combine the world of gaming with cinematic codes. We have compiled a list of some of the best examples (and some of the worst) for the release of Uncharted, proudly sponsored by Son-Vidéo.com. All this to find out what makes a good or bad video game movie.
Movie adaptations of video games have a particularly bad rep. But not always for good reason. This lack of credibility is often due to questionable quality, to the absence of vision on the part of the director, or to inadequate financial means. The disastrous adaptations directed by German filmmaker Uwe Boll (Far Cry Warrior, BloodRayne, Postal…) are a good example of this. They have even become cult movies because of their mediocrity. However, the unpopularity of these types of movies isn’t always justified and is sometimes arbitrary.
So much so that some acceptable movies find themselves relegated to the reject pile. The divorce between video games and cinema seems, especially in the eyes of informed moviegoers, to have been finalized long ago. We cannot completely prove them wrong, but a reconciliation is still possible. For that, a reconsideration of this underestimated sub-genre is necessary. Let’s start by listing some of the most successful video game adaptations, often wrongly forgotten. It’s also an opportunity to ask ourselves why it’s so difficult to make a feature film based on a video game, and why major studios are reluctant to take the plunge.
A rare gem: Uncharted, by Ruben Fleischer
Imagine a video game that draws its inspiration from the quintessential Indiana Jones (its humor, magic and epic pace) and Tomb Raider (exploration and treasure). The result is the ultimate combination of cinema and gaming. This brilliant idea is at the heart of the Uncharted series created by Naughty Dog. The legendary studio, which created the iconic Crash Bandicoot platform games, took on the concept in 2007 with Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.
From the outset, Uncharted became one of the most successful adventure video game blockbusters. Three exceptional opuses followed, including the masterful Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End released in 2016 (the last? Not so sure…). How is the saga so original and effective? Thanks to its huge budget (incredible production, lavish direction, epic music), but mostly its sophisticated writing. A style that is strangely reminiscent of Pixar productions, which mix grandiloquence and emotion with true sensitivity and accuracy.
If Uncharted brilliantly succeeds in its transition to the big screen, it is because it preserves all these essential elements. Among them, the experienced gamer will instantly recognize the characteristic mix of contemplation (enchanting landscapes) and frenzied action (acrobatics and gunfights) that form the adventures of Nathan Drake. Constantly shifting between meticulous excavations and epic action, Uncharted is like a roller coaster where every loop is unexpected. Ruben Fleischer is the perfect director to cleverly reinvent this concept that has already been seen a thousand times. The genius “geek” behind the movies Welcome to Zombieland (2009) and Venom (2018), the American director’s take is particularly creative. Each action scene in Uncharted seems to be constructed like a ballet, with surgical precision. The most observant will notice direct references to the video game saga, such as the acrobatic scene in which Drake is thrown out of a plane (a nod to Uncharted 3).
As for the scenario, Uncharted is presented as a prequel to the series. While flashbacks, especially to illustrate Drake’s childhood, were already common in the Uncharted games (especially in the second and fourth opus), this time the action takes place before the events of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007). The plot follows the meeting between Nathan Drake aka “Nate” (played by Tom Holland) and Victor Sullivan aka “Sully” (played by Mark Wahlberg). Still as mismatched as ever, the duo sets out to find Magellan’s treasure, estimated to be worth $5 billion. Samuel Drake, Nathan’s missing brother, is said to have left some clues for the treasure seekers…
To develop the story, screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Iron Man, Transformers: The Last Knight) were wise enough to retain one of Uncharted‘s most fun features: its buddy film feel. Both irreconcilable and inseparable, the impetuous Nate and the sarcastic Sully are certainly a compelling pair. A combination that evokes the effervescence of the anti-heroes of Midnight Run or even Lethal Weapon. Another feature of the writing: the accuracy of Uncharted with regard to the gaming saga, in terms of atmosphere and even the clothes of the protagonists and objects of quest. Mystical swashbuckling atmosphere, leather backpacks and Henley shirts… it’s all there. Enough to satisfy both the fan and the movie lover.
Released in theaters on February 16, 2022 (France)
Silent Hill, by Christophe Gans: a misunderstood masterpiece
Based on Konami’s famous survival horror franchise (the lyrical counterpart to the Resident Evil series), Silent Hill doesn’t try to directly imitate its model. On the contrary, it detaches itself from the game to remain more accurate, favoring the imaginary over the tangible. The movie by Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Beauty and the Beast…) stands out for its transversal and synthetic look at the saga.
Gothic masterpieces, the first installments of the Silent Hill series are like waking nightmares. Disturbing and poetically macabre, these unsettling games seem impossible to adapt. And yet, without ever trying to elucidate their mystery (but sometimes deepening it), Christophe Gans manages to bring them to life thanks to a stunning aesthetic. Immersed in the thick fog of Silent Hill, the viewer walks through a ghost town populated by beautiful and repulsive creatures.
The town of Silent Hill, a sort of alternate dimension like The Mist (Stephen King), draws its power from the obsessions of its protagonists. Almost as if the characters (or at least their unconscious) were creating the horrors that torment them in spite of themselves. The art direction is gorgeous, the music by Akira Yamaoka (the original composer of the Silent Hill saga) as suffocating as it is hypnotic. All this gives the film Silent Hill a captivating and ambiguous atmosphere. An unforgettable and frightening journey that is undoubtedly one of the best video game adaptations ever made. In 2020, director Christophe Gans announced his intention to shoot a new film based on Silent Hill. Hopefully, the project will become a reality.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
DTS-HD Master Audio, 16/9
Sonic the Hedgehog, by Jeff Fowler (2020): a pleasant surprise that made quite the comeback
Sonic the Hedgehog generated considerable commentary and despair among many fans even before its release. In 2019, the production studio Paramount Pictures had deemed it appropriate to start promoting the film by releasing a trailer. The latter immediately caused one of the worst bad buzzes in the history of the blue hedgehog. In the teaser, Sonic’s design (bulging eyes, fluorescent fur, long legs that were far too heavy…) bore very little resemblance to the iconic mascot from Sega. As a result, the backlash from fans was so intense that Paramount agreed to completely redesign the hedgehog (a huge task, considering how far along the project was at the time). And we have to admit that this mistake was a saving grace for the movie.
Although the reception by critics and audiences was timid, Sonic the Hedgehog was a success in more ways than one. It would be easy to criticize its minimalist plot and (very) playful tone. However, these characteristics were already present in the 1991 eponymous video game for the Sega Genesis. So yes, Sonic the Hedgehog accentuates the candor of the character Sonic, but let’s not forget that this is a prequel, and the hedgehog is supposed to be a child here. The transposition of Sonic’s universe to Earth (notably the small American town of Green Hills, which takes its name from the video game’s famous level) works remarkably well. Better still: the combination of CGI animation and live action is consistent and seamless.
The appealing eighties atmosphere is reminiscent of Amblin productions (Gremlins, E.T., etc.), but boosted with digital effects and roaring new technologies. In the role of Dr. Robotnik, Jim Carrey offers an excellently outrageous performance that only he is capable of. Not without its flaws (the script is rather conventional), Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the few platform games to benefit from such a polished adaptation. The only negative aspect may be the music of the video game, which remains too inconspicuous. A second opus, where Sonic meets his sidekicks Tails and Knuckles, will be released in March 2022.
By comparison, the movie Super Mario Bros. (Rocky Morton, Annabel Jankel, Dean Semler, 1993) is a total train wreck. Caricatured to the extreme, with its unrecognizable characters and botched sets, the adaptation of Miyamoto’s iconic platform game was a real flop. Without a doubt, one of the worst video game adaptations ever made.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Dolby Digital, 16/9
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within: an ill-fated yet revolutionary movie
Over twenty years after their creation, the pre-rendered computer graphics of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within haven’t stood the test of time. While it was a stunning technical feat in 2001, the finesse of the textures now struggle to match certain video games running in real time. However, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Monotori Sakakibara’s movie continues to captivate.
How can this lasting charm be explained? Firstly, because the film accurately transposes the complex universe of the Final Fantasy saga, despite its detachment from the original work. Secondly, because the artistic direction is quite amazing. Its mystical aura (dreams, visions) reminds us of Ghost in the Shell, an animated Japanese science fiction gem. Tarkovskian for some (Solaris, Stalker…), Dickensian for others (for the writer’s dystopian side), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within fascinates with its crepuscular and disenchanted beauty. Conceived in the image of major sci-fi movies, its basic scenario (a scientist in search of spirits in a universe devastated by ghosts that exterminate humans) gives free rein to allegory and imagination.
The result is a sensory and compelling movie. It’s a pity that Final Fantasy’s titanic budget (137 million dollars) and its spectacular commercial failure (85 million dollars at the box-office) caused the bankruptcy of Square (publisher of the Final Fantasy saga). In 2003, the company was forced to merge with its main competitor, Enix, to become Square Enix, following the release of this doomed (and revolutionary) film.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Dolby Digital, 16/9
Pokémon Detective Pikachu, by Rob Letterman: the clever neo thriller
The title sounds ironic and almost like a parody. However, this isn’t the case. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a very serious adaptation of the Pokémon franchise. Not content with masterfully using the fundamental elements of the saga created by Satoshi Tajiri, the film manages to translate them to novices while (positively) baffling fans. The synopsis is simple and effective. Tim, the son of a private investigator, goes looking for his missing father. To help him in his quest, he can count on an investigator unlike any other: Pikachu, a Sherlock Holmes-like super-detective as irresistible as he is cynical. The duo soon leads the investigation through the city of Ryme, where humans and Pokémon coexist.
To stage this universe teeming with creatures, director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps, Gulliver’s Travels) and his screenwriters draw on the classics of the crime comedy genre. Pokémon Detective Pikachu‘s main inspiration is called Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1988). The filmmaker was inspired by its tongue-in-cheek storytelling and structure, while adding a gentle and visually appealing touch. Playing Pikachu, a cheeky, caffeine-addicted creature, is actor Ryan Reynolds, whose performance shines through the CGI. Perfectly integrated into the live-action shots, the Pokémon remain believable, and that in itself is a remarkable achievement.
The mix of genres (thriller, animation, adventure, buddy film…) is clever and well balanced. Without pretending to become the canonical adaptation of the Pokémon franchise, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is nevertheless a masterful piece of fanfiction. A success that should inspire countless video game adaptations in need of inventiveness.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Dolby Digital, 16/9
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, by Mike Newell: back to basics
Revolutionary when it was released on the Apple II in 1989, the action/platform game Prince of Persia is one of the most important and influential works in video game history. Having become obsolete at the end of the 90s, the Prince of Persia series was unexpectedly reborn in 2003 with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Ubisoft), an admirable 3D tribute to the original game. It is this game, released on home consoles and PC, that the movie Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is based on.
Directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donny Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire…), the feature film also benefits from the rigor and ingenuity of Jordan Mechner. Historical developer of the original Prince of Persia, he participated in the project as a scriptwriter. A rather fruitful association under the Disney trademark and supported by the producers of Pirates of the Caribbean. Exhilarating chases, frenetic fights… Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is full of high-octane scenes and is a lot of fun to say the least. In addition to faithfully replicating the One Thousand and One Nights-like atmosphere of the original game, the film incorporates some of the key elements of old-fashioned adventure movies.
Although the structure of the film is, like all Disney productions, rather predictable, the journey is full of visual discoveries. Artistically, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time even has many striking scenes. As for the cast, actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton, a bit monotone at times, prove to be exemplary in the roles of Dastan and Tamina. The result is a brawny fairy tale, with no surprises or genius, but supported by impressive and efficient logistics.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Disney+
Dolby Digital, 16/9
Assassin’s Creed, by Justin Kurzel: a mundane yet well-oiled machine
Flagship of the giant Ubisoft, the Assassin’s Creed saga (already 16 titles) has been one of the best-selling action/adventure games in video game history since 2007. True video game blockbusters, each new opus now generates almost as much hype as a new addition to the GTA saga. Cinematic in essence, the Assassin’s Creed franchise had all the ingredients to be adapted for the big screen. This was done in 2016 with an eponymous film directed by Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth).
A brilliant director (notably with his edgy thrillers), Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel shifts from independent cinema to a blockbuster for this movie (150 million euro budget). The result is a composite piece that is both emotional (the acting of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons all contribute to this) and brutal. Action packed, Assassin’s Creed is full of hand-to-hand combat (kills are still the key word in the original game) and acrobatic parkour scenes. The premise is simple: in a futuristic laboratory, Callum Lynch relives the adventures of his ancestor Aguilar during the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century thanks to a revolutionary technology (the Animus). All the skills acquired by the protagonist in the past are used to fight the Templar Order in the present.
The fight between Assassins and Templars, the Apple of Eden, the leap of faith… in Assassin’s Creed we find many of the ingredients and mechanisms of the eponymous saga. Without trying to reinvent the action and science fiction genres, this feature film offers an experience that is sometimes quite exhilarating. Even better: its original and intelligent storyline does not forget to be captivating. The dizzying direction and polished photography of Adam Arkapaw (Justin Kurzel’s recurring collaborator) also greatly contribute to the success of Assassin’s Creed. However, these qualities were not enough to give the film the critical and commercial acclaim it had hoped for.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix and Prime Video
Dolby Digital, 16/9
Warcraft: The Beginning, by Duncan Jones: fan service and splendor
Given the importance of the Warcraft license, this movie adaptation couldn’t have been anything else but a blockbuster (160 millions dollar budget). Surprisingly, at the helm of Warcraft: The Beginning is a former rising star of British independent cinema: Duncan Jones (son of a certain David Bowie), who had already made a name for himself with the films Moon and Source Code. This time, the English filmmaker trades elegance for efficiency. The price to pay for fulfilling the gargantuan requirements of Warcraft: The Beginning. And the result, in spite of its hermetic aspect which will satisfy fans while confusing neophytes, is far from disappointing.
Warcraft players may remember the epic and enchanting cinematics of Warcraft 3. In a few minutes, the geniuses from Blizzard (bought by Microsoft in 2022 for no less than 68.7 billion) managed to create a fantastical, thrilling atmosphere. An aura that persisted during the gameplay. While the technical prowess achieved by Warcraft: The Beginning borders on perfection, the atmosphere does not captivate the viewer as much as the game. A lesser intensity that can be explained by the difference in format, especially with a 2h04 runtime. Nevertheless, Duncan Jones’ film impresses in many ways.
In the tradition of Avatar and The Lord of the Rings, the filmmaker demonstrates great attention to detail. The city of Stormwind, Azeroth, the Lion’s Pride Tavern, the forges, the spells, the costumes and armor… There are many references for fans. An abundance that makes the universe of Warcraft: The Beginning extremely credible and immersive. The other undeniable success of the film lies in its stunning special effects. Landscapes, cities, spells, a colorful bestiary… all appear grandiose and superbly shot by cinematographer Simon Duggan.
Only the script of the feature film seems a little lightweight – although its simplicity also allows novices to assimilate the universe. Moreover, Ramin Djawadi’s (Game of Thrones) music brilliantly reproduces the themes already known to players. While the story of Warcraft: The Beginning calls for a sequel, it doesn’t seem to be on the cards for the time being.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Dolby Digital, 16/9
Is there a recipe for a successful video game adaptation?
For want of a clear method, let’s say that the success of a good video game adaptation depends on the right balance of accuracy and artistic freedom, or on a unique vision. So what is a good video game adaptation? A film that strives to appeal to both the informed gamer and the casual viewer. Or on the contrary, a movie that chooses to distance itself from the initial concept to explore the universe of the video game in an original way: this is the case of Silent Hill, Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. However, some rare exceptions manage to remain true to the original without compromising on their cinematographic quality or construction, such as the highly cinematic adventures of Uncharted.
As it is often difficult or even impossible to fully satisfy both the players and the viewers (at the risk of making concessions either on the content or on the schematization), even when the film is a success (Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft…), creating something that is halfway between the two is probably the best solution. This inevitably results in eclectic works, constantly juggling between the popularization of the concept and the incorporation of easter eggs for fans (Rampage, Tomb Raider, The Witcher series…). A balancing act that is complex, costly and therefore risky. This is all the more true when it comes to packing a game scenario that lasts a hundred hours or more into a 2 hour long movie. This is why adaptations of large-scale video games, which even the major studios are reluctant to make, are so rare.
There are many disasters when it comes to video game adaptations. Some of which are so nightmarish that many production studios are now very unwilling to get involved in similar projects. In addition to the prime example of Super Mario Bros., we can mention the disastrous Max Payne (John Moore, 2008), the dreadful Street Fighter (Steven E. De Souza, 1994) – a parody of Capcom’s famous game -, the bitter failures of Mortal Kombat (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1995) and Double Dragon (James Yukich, 1994). From Doom to Postal and Dead or Alive, Hitman, Far Cry Warrior, Tekken, and BloodRayne, it would take too long to list all the bad movies based on video games. In any case, these failures are examples of what not to do.
If there was one director to redeem among this list, thanks to a few less catastrophic films, it would perhaps be Paul W.S. Anderson. An insatiable director of video game adaptations, he is responsible for Resident Evil (2002) and its many sequels. Between bad taste, tawdry effects and tacky plots, the filmmaker has invented a sub-genre all his own. A recipe, always with the actress Milla Jovovich as a muse, which nevertheless has its adepts. This thread has been continued lately with Monster Hunter (2021). Poor adaptations that still manage to deliver thanks to some good digital effects and omnipresent action.