On the limits of movie adaptations of video games
After seeing the recent Tomb Raider remake in theatres (a reboot of Angelina Jolie’s 2001 version, based on the mega popular video game series), I’d like to make a bold observation: These movies never turn out any good.
That’s not to say they aren’t successful. The new Tomb Raider, for instance, saw large box office numbers, and last weekend, Rampage (a movie based on the classic 1986 arcade game) opened by pulling in $35 million (with help from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is somehow charming and brutish at the same time). Also still in theaters is the video-game-inspired adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, about which the internet has a lot of opinions. (Personally, I thought Spielberg’s adaptation was an upgrade from Cline’s novel, but that’s still not saying much).
So clearly, there’s an audience and a market for these films, but I doubt there will ever be a great video game adaptation for the big screen. While both video games and movies offer the same basic sense of escapism that all entertainment does, why we play games is very different from why we watch movies. The video game is a user-customized experience, where the player has a certain level of autonomy over how the story is executed, versus the passive experience of movie-watching.
Essentially, watching a video-game movie is kind of like watching your buddy play games in your undergrad dorm room because you were too broke to own the console yourself. Sure, it might be fun to watch, but it’s not the same. The personal, subjective attachment a player has to a video game will never be achieved via a director’s take. It can deliver all day long on stunning visuals (see: the Resident Evil franchise), but the source material often doesn’t provide enough characterization to sustain a film.
The Tomb Raider film franchise comes close to having both, but still misses the mark. The 2001 version, which I quite like, succeeds because of Angelina Jolie and Daniel Craig, acting in an era when actors weren’t self-conscious that they were making a video-game movie. Jolie’s Lara Croft is just as compelling, sassy, and sexy as the video game character is meant to be. “It is the closest a big-budget video-game movie has ever come to working,” says Jordan Crucchiola at Vulture. He claims that the original Tomb Raider, directed by Simon West, is just as good as any other West-directed film (Con Air, The General’s Daughter, The Expendables), but will never reach a higher pinnacle than that.
The 2018 Tomb Raider reboot doesn’t quite have the same charm, but with an almost 50% Rotten Tomatoes rating, it’s still a feat for the genre. It has all of the aesthetic pleasure: expansive, lush environments, swooping helicopter shots, near-miss booby traps, and hunts for treasure. However, Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Lara is dull compared to Jolie’s version. Lara’s relationship with her father is never felt or expressed to the depth that real cinema needs. It’s a shame, because we’re living in a moment when video game story development is more than rich enough to inspire a great B-movie.
“It’s time to stop judging video-game movies the way we judge other movies, and instead start weighing them exclusively against their peers,” David Edelstein writes at Vulture. “Street Fighter is always going to suffer in comparison to Die Hard, but if you look at it in the context of similar movies, it starts to look pretty impressive.” The B-movie is the absolute ceiling for video-game movies, and we shouldn’t expect any more out of them.