Alone in the Dark retreats into the shadows

The search for a quality gaming film

Games and the movies don't mix. As far as the silver screen is concerned they have a terrible reputation, with almost every single game that has ever been turned into a film having either failed spectacularly at the box office or received a serious mauling from the critics. Often both. There seems to be something about taking a video game character and transferring them onto celluloid which defeats the talents of all who have attempted it. While video games are still not well renowned for their in-depth character development and innovative and intriguing plotlines, the consistency of indecency that exemplifies the game-to-movie genre is so strong that it begs for two questions to be asked. One: why do people still try, and two: will someone ever make a truly great film based on a video game?

The answer to question one is the easier of the two to come up with. You see, for all their myriad of faults; in acting, plotting, set design, pacing, character development, score, SFX and direction, there have been some game movies which have actually performed well at the box office. Some have done so well as to turn a respectable profit. So while no one in their right mind would say that either of the Resident Evil movies were anything grander than celluloid toilet paper (and they wouldn't be much good at that either, film being a very slippery substance) they did at least make some reasonable bank. The first R.E. film made $102 million worldwide, for costs of about $55 million (all figures from Box Office Mojo). Its sequel pulled in $130M for expenses of $70M. The biggest game-to-movie event was the first Tomb Raider film. Surely one of the most iconic characters of all time, who was well know by people who had never played a game in their life, could inject the genre with a modicum of respectability. Financially it managed this with aplomb, bringing in $274M for a budget of $115M, not including marketing costs. Some of the reviews were favourable and even if for some strange reason you don't find Miss Jolie exceedingly attractive you had to admit that she nailed her character better than any other actor had managed in a similarly game-inspired project. While the money earned wasn't in the stratospheric level, it was high enough to get games industry types excited that maybe the long period of shame was over. The execrable Tomb Raider 2, with its minimal profits, around $25M, knocked their confidence for six.

The history of games at the movies is a surprisingly long one given the youthful age of the games industry. The first movie that took gaming to the silver screen was a forgotten 'gem' called The Wizard. Released way back in 1989 it wasn't actually a conversion of an actual game into a movie, rather it was a somewhat shameless attempt by Nintendo to make some extra moolah off of the NES craze that was sweeping the US at the time. Starring Fred Savage, the little tyke from the TV show The Wonder Years, the 'plot' revolved around Fred's attempt to get himself and two pals to the Video Game Armageddon in California, where they could use their potential winnings to gain independence from their messed up family lives. The Wizard was chock full of games from Nintendo's catalogue of the time, with Rad Racer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a sneak preview of Super Mario Brothers 3. Featuring such tat as the Power Glove, a ridiculous peripheral that could only have appeared in the late eighties, The Wizard probably ranks as the most shameless 90 minute advertisement masquerading as a movie in the history of cinema. It even made a respectable amount of money, grossing over $14M in the US alone.

Nintendo were obviously buoyed by the success of the film and no doubt inspired by the resulting boost in sales for the software and hardware that featured in it. So they set about creating what would become a legend. Super Mario Brothers was the first live-action adaptation of a video game. Starring portly Bob Hoskins as Mario and a jobbing Dennis Hopper as King Koopa the film was a travesty of truly epic proportions. With a paper-thin plot concerning a princess rescue and a land populated by dinosaurs, Super Mario Brothers had none of the charm of the Nintendo games it took its 'inspiration' from and none of the qualities that usually go to make up a watchable movie. The film consequently tanked at the box office, with its very high (for the time), production costs of $50M somewhat eclipsing the $20M-odd it made at the US box office. Unsurprisingly, it fared little better around the rest of the world and it seemed like the game movie had been strangled at birth.

But that underestimates the paucity of originality that defines the Hollywood studio system. Even before Super Mario Brothers had begun its embarrassing run at the box office three other games were being turned into movies. Sensing that plumbers and princesses were not perhaps the best characters to introduce to a bewildered public, executives hit on the idea of combing an established movie genre, the martial arts movie, with a very popular gaming genre, the beat-em up. Both were very similar forms of entertainment, requiring little thought more than that required to enjoy seeing things get the crap kicked out of them. Surely this approach would pay dividends.

The first film into the ring was Double Dragon. A seminal beat-em up that had enjoyed great success in the arcades and on home systems, the film was unfathomably shite and bombed like the Blitz, taking in a derisory $2.5M at the US box office. Universal Studios must have been bricking it, as their Street Fighter film was up next in just a few short weeks. Fortunately for them they had invested in some 'star' power, with the likes of Jean Claude Van-Damme and Kylie surely being more responsible for its estimated $50M profit than the pathetically un-engaging movie itself. The similarities between the game and the film stretched no farther than the actors bearing a slight similarity to their game characters. But what could you expect from a game that had no story whatsoever and whose attraction lay in the special fighting moves, which the film didn't even attempt to recreate?

The makers of Mortal Kombat must have been rubbing their hand with glee after the Street Fighter numbers came in while running to the lavatory when they recalled Double Dragon. Against all the odds Mortal Kombat was a very successful film, in the financial sense that is. It raked in over $122M dollars worldwide and while we don't know its production costs we can assume that there were plenty of hookers and lines to go about in the executive boardrooms. It appeared that the curse of the videogame movie had been broken, and that the wafer thin plotting and characterisation of the typical Hollywood action movie was well partnered with the video game, a medium which up to this point, didn't even ponder the notion of a storyline outside of the RPG and adventure genres.

So it's strange why after this flurry of activity there was a five year hiatus. Maybe there weren't enough interesting games being made. The mid to late nineties weren't bereft of interesting games that could have translated well to the big screen, and surely Hollywood wasn't hurting from the universal scorn that the critics and film goers had heaped on the artistic qualities of the movies, so we can applaud those brave souls who brought the games back to the multiplex, in the shape of 1999's Wing Commander.

The Wing Commander games were some of the first titles that made a serious attempt to bring the cinema to the monitor screen. Around this time, a few years after the advent of the CD-ROM and all the FMV joy that was slopped onto them regardless of the title's need for such superfluous indulgence, games were making attempts to have themselves considered a serious and grown up media. For most developers that meant trowelling FMVs all over the place, with such horrors as Phantasmagoria stretching across nine whole CDs, each one stuffed with dross of the highest order. The Wing Commander series was one that actually made good use of FMV and integrated it well with its branching storylines and interactive missions. One of the game's prime movers, Chris Roberts, made no secret of his desire to make the transition from filming game cutscenes into proper cinematic directing. He got his wish when an over eager Fox executive thought the adventures of Blair, Angel and Maniac would make for compelling viewing. With a story set in space featuring huge space battles, vicious aliens and the thespian talents of Freddie Prinze Jnr. who could blame the poor fellow for thinking he was on to a sure thing.

After Wing Commander lost at least $20M and was vilified by cinema goer and gamer alike it was a brave man who optioned a game character for the big screen treatment. Or, it took one who knew that the Pokemon craze was going to be a money-spinner of cosmic proportions.

The first Pokemon movie came along at the tale end of 1999. It included most of the elements that had helped to make the little buggers the most sought after creatures on the planet; cutesy looks, simplicity, cutesy look, weird Japaneseness and piss-poor animation. The Pokemon movie made a respectable profit of well over $100M worldwide with many more dollars being made when it hit the video stores a few months later. This kind of profit ensured a slew of sequels, but unfortunately for them Pokemon was all about the craze. So while Pokemon: The Movie 2000, which was released eight months after the first film, also made around $100M by the time the third and final sequel Pokemon: Heroes hit the cinemas in 2003 it could only scrape together $746,381 in the US, with unknown production costs. Ouch.

During the gap between the first and last Pokemon movies the two Tomb Raider films and first Resident Evil movie had been released. And while all three movies made some very respectable cash they still couldn't shake off the public's rightful impression that as a genre, the game movie was absolute tosh. None of the movies that were born out of a video console or computer title were ever any good. Yet the fact they tended to make money more often than they lost it was enough for the movie executives to continue to occasionally greenlight a game flick.

Enter Uwe Boll. A now legendary German director, his first stab at the game movie was House of the Dead. Quite how anyone, even the most coked-up executive, could think that a film based around a light-gun game could ever be anything more than a shambles remains a mystery, yet obviously someone did entertain such a 'thought'. House of the Dead turned out to be quite remarkable, not only for the amount of money it went on to lose ($10M) but for the unimaginable depths of awfulness to which it sank. Internet movie barometer Rotten Tomatoes assign it a rotten rating of 4%, with only two of the 46 collected reviews having anything positive to say about this brain-dead movie. But Mr Boll wasn't about to let the derision of the world hold him back. He next turned his talent to Alone in the Dark, a seminal French adventure game which first appeared back in 1992 and spawned a couple of equally successful sequels. With a storyline inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and featuring spooky mansions and the supernatural, it sounded like it could be both a good money spinner and possibly even a quality piece of cinema.

Not in the hands of Mr Boll. Even with stars like Christian Slater and Stephen Dorff, (okay, so they aren't exactly at the peaks of their careers) and a juicy R rating, Alone in the Dark: The Movie is safely on track to be the worst performing live action game movie of all time. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rotten rating of 3%, a level of awfulness that is made even clearer when you consider out of the 78 reviews counted, two had something nice to say about the film. This is possibly the worst reviewed film of modern times. And with a budget of $30M (before marketing costs are taken into account) the makers must have hoped for a better opening weekend than $3M. While it's possible it may make some more money, Alone In The Dark is destined for a title position in the history of terrible game to film conversions.

So what does the future hold and where is that elusive good game film? Unfortunately for us, Uwe Boll's name has been attached to a Far Cry movie and is in the post-production stage with his Blood Rayne film. So we can assume that neither of those flicks will be the salvation of the game movie genre. There's also a DOOM movie in the works and while the jettisoning of Hell as the source of evil seems peculiar there is a chance it could become a passable action picture. Even though games are still lagging far behind their filmic cousins in terms of almost all the things that make a good movie it seems that it's only the 'talent' of those making the film that determines its crapness. Yet while studios continue to churn out crap in the name of a quick buck the chances of anyone with much of a reputation attaching themselves to a game adaptation are slim. I suppose there will be a quality film made about a game one day, just not for a while yet.

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