Video game adaptations have a notorious reputation for being awful. Decades of bad movies will do that, as directors high (Duncan Jones, Justin Kurzel) and low (Uwe Boll, pretty much everyone else) have struggled to translate the success in one medium to another. What makes video games, which have only grown to be more cinematic throughout the years, so hard to adapt? They have built-in appealing characters, narrative mythologies ripe for exploration, and even distinct visual looks that make them ideal for silver screen adaptation.
With Uncharted being the latest in a long line of disappointments (it’s currently at 38% on Rotten Tomatoes), it begs the question: Have there been any decent films made from a video game? The genre has its fair share of so-bad-it’s good films (Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne are good for some cheap laughs), but there have been only a handful of films, all released in the last five years, that have fully satisfied both audiences and critics.
Rampage (2018) – 51%
What do you get when you combine Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a trio of oversized CG creatures, and massive destruction on a global scale? Pretty much any other movie starring The Rock. Yet while Rampage doesn’t win points for originality, it does have enough humor and heart (that toxic combo that can make almost anything watchable) to pass the time without feeling too guilty about it. The plot concerns Johnson teaming up with a giant albino gorilla to stop two mutated creatures, a male wolf and a female crocodile, from destroying a city. There are some attempts at deeper themes (the morality of genetic manipulation, the suppression of animal rights), but it’s all overshadowed by plentiful scenes of mayhem and destruction. The film works because the video game it’s based on, also titled Rampage, has a simple concept: See monsters destroy buildings and eat people. Rampage passes that very low bar thanks to outstanding special effects (the creatures are lifelike and otherworldly at the same time) and Johnson, whose natural star charisma can sell just about anything.
Tomb Raider (2018) – 52%
The first attempt to translate video games’ most popular action heroine, Lara Croft, to film occurred in 2001, when Angelina Jolie, hot after a Best Supporting Actress Oscar victory for Girl, Interrupted, starred as the adventurer. While the film was a financial success, not a lot of people actually liked it, and the sequel two years later flopped with both audiences and critics. Cut to 2018, when Alicia Vikander, hot after her Best Supporting Actress Oscar victory for The Danish Girl, starred as everyone’s favorite female Indiana Jones stand-in. Tomb Raider was only a moderate financial success, but a far better film, largely due to Vikander playing up Croft’s traumatic backstory and the film’s gritty tone that makes her adventures somewhat plausible. The plot is by-the-numbers (something to do with buried treasure, a sinister corporation, and, you guessed it, tomb raiding), but it all works thanks to Vikander’s commitment to the role and Roar Uthaug’s competent direction.
Mortal Kombat (2021) – 54%
Another modern reboot, the 2021 version of Mortal Kombat utilized advances in special effects to its advantage in a way its ’90s predecessors (1995’s Mortal Kombat and 1997’s woeful Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) couldn’t. The result is a movie largely faith to depicting the unique power sets of some of the franchise’s most famous characters: The fire-breathing Scorpion, the ice-blasting Sub-Zero, the shape-shifting Shang Tsung, and so on. The film’s violence is deliberately over-the-top, with blood gushing from every wound like a Tarantino film, and the uncharacteristic humor works rather than hurts. This Mortal Kombat was rightly criticized for lacking a key defining narrative element (there was no tournament!), but the film best works if you frame it as a prequel to the inevitable follow-up film, which has already been greenlit.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) – 63%
Sonic the Hedgehog had everything working against it. Its protagonist was the latest in a long line of video game mascots to receive the feature film treatment, none of which were any good. An early preview of the character’s CG-revamped design was met with a chorus of snickers and boos, prompting the studio to spend millions of dollars changing it ahead of release. And the film’s release month, February, wasn’t exactly known for launching new blockbuster franchises. Yet somehow, the film succeeded, becoming one of the highest-grossing and critically praised video game adaptations of all time. That’s largely due to the film’s three stars. As the voice of Sonic, Ben Schwartz (still known best as the obnoxious Jean-Ralphio from Parks & Recreation) stays true to the character’s charming, hyperactive nature. As Sonic’s human friend Tom, James Marsden acts as the perfect straight man to Sonic’s whiplash jokester. Last but not least, Jim Carrey is a blast as Sonic’s nemesis Dr. Robotnik, whose cartoonish villainy is perfectly embodied by Carrey’s rubber-faced theatrics.
Detective Pikachu (2019) – 68%
One of the most popular video game franchises is Pokémon, so it makes sense that a feature film with the colorful pocket monsters would be made eventually. Fortunately, Detective Pikachu largely contains the humor and worldbuilding that made the video games popular throughout the years. The film places Pokemon’s most recognizable character, Pikachu, in a murder mystery plot that allows him, and the audience, to encounter all kinds of creatures, from Mewtwo to Ditto to Bulbasaur. If these names mean nothing to you, don’t worry; Detective Pikachu works for both fans and neophytes who can’t tell their Eevees from their Charmanders. The film’s lighthearted humor is largely supplied by Ryan Reynolds, who provides Pikachu with a disarming blend of naiveté and enthusiasm that makes the character endearing. It’s one of the few big-budget films that earns its willingness to plant the seed for future installments. Who wouldn’t want to follow a Ryan Reynolds-voiced Pikachu on his next adventure?
Werewolves Within (2021) – 86%
The best video game adaptation by far is also both the newest and least well-known film on this list. Werewolves Within is based on the Ubisoft VR title of the same name that was released in 2016. Both the game and the film chronicle the gradual decline of a small town as it is besieged by blizzards, human folly, and, of course, werewolves. The film updates the video game’s medieval setting to modern times and expertly depicts how mistrust between the town’s citizens is just as destructive as the supernatural force that is manipulating all of them. The film received a limited release in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but is worth checking out for its atmospheric visuals and immersive storyline. Like any good adaptation, it builds upon what made the source material work and adjusts it to the adapted medium, making Werewolves Within a uniquely cinematic experience that stays true to its spooky video game roots.
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