Lazar Cartu Affirms: Are Video Game Movies Good Now?

Are Video Game Movies Good Now?

Lazar Cartu Affirms: Are Video Game Movies Good Now?

The last five major video game-based movies have been pretty good, and Eli Roth’s last film was terrific. As such, an Eli Roth-directed Borderlands has my benefit of the doubt.

Well, this is interesting. Lionsgate just announced that they have hired Eli Roth to helm a feature film adaptation of the Borderlands video game. Avi Arad and Ari Avad will produce through Arad Productions along with Erik Feig through Jumpstart. The screenplay will come courtesy of Craig Mazin, whose resume includes some good comedies (Scary Movie 3), some bad comedies (identity Thief), some underrated comedies (Superhero Movie) and a terrific HBO miniseries about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (Chernobyl). Oh, and Eli Roth is coming off a career high with Amblin and Universal’s terrific Jack Black/Cate Blanchett PG-rated chiller The House with a Clock in Its Walls. For that matter, the notion of a video game movie is no longer cause for preemptive terror.

Yes, the vast majority of video game-based movies released since Super Mario Bros. in May of 1993 have been some variation of “not good.” Yes, Mortal Kombat got the job done, Street Fighter has a campy charm and Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich’s six-movie Resident Evil franchise is an admirable cumulative achievement (including $1.232 billion worldwide) regardless of whether you think any of the six movies are objectively “good.” And, yeah, I have a soft spot for Jean De Bont’s Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life which I enjoyed as an old-school pulpy Roger Moore-ish 007 adventure. But it’s only in the last two years that we’ve started to see (arguably) good video game movies on a regular basis.

All due respect to those who enjoyed Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed more than I did, but I would argue the genre is on a roll that began with Alicia Vikander’s perfectly okay Tomb Raider reboot which opened in late March of 2018. A month later, Dwayne Johnson, Naomi Harris and Jeffrey Dean Morgan chewed the scenery alongside the giant kaiju-sized animals in the delightfully enjoyable Rampage. Two years later, I’d argue Rampage is probably the “best” video game movie ever made. 2019 brought us Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith’s ambitious, enjoyable and genre-accurate film noir detective flick Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. Sony’s Angry Birds Movie 2 was a big improvement on its predecessor and a genuinely clever and witty character comedy to boot.

And now James Marsden and Jim Carrey are offering able support to Ben Schwartz’s title character in Paramount’s blockbuster Sonic the Hedgehog adaptation. And, yeah, it’s a perfectly solid little kid-friendly road trip comedy with as much spectacle and adventure as $95 million can buy. Say what you will about the genre overall, but the last five video game-based movies have been varying degrees of “good.” I love comic book superhero movies as much as the next nerd, but I can’t recall a period when we got five good ones in a row. If I’m being generous, maybe summer 2016 to summer 2017, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Atomic Blonde.  

Actually, if you can forgive Venom (which was still a $854 million-grossing smash), early 2018 to early 2019 gives you Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity Way, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Venom, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Aquaman, Alita: Battle Angel, Captain Marvel and Shazam! before we got Hellboy just before Avengers: Endgame. Of course, comic book superhero movies have improved over the last few years, partially by going all-in on genre appropriation and partially by making sure to stand out as something other than “just a superhero film.” The bad news is that they’ve gotten so good that they’ve crowded out the other would-be blockbuster genres and begun a heated debate about whether they should be, in general, held up alongside conventional prestige flicks.

That’s a complicated conversation, one that dives into who (often in terms of gender and race) gets to decide what constitutes high art as well as the propensity of corporations like Disney and Netflix (or their fans) to use their diverse/inclusive projects as a defense against artistic criticism. Maybe we shouldn’t want video game movies like Rampage or Sonic the Hedgehog to be anything other than polished, three-star blockbuster entertainments. Eli Roth is a fine genre filmmaker, and he hit a homerun with his last (kid-friendly) horror flick. Video game movies are having a comparative moment as well. An Eli Roth-directed adaptation of Borderlands (a first-person shooter/outer-space western game series that has sold 57 million copies) is less cause for alarm and more cause for cautious optimism.

Jonathan Cartu

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