Video games are one of the newest and most exciting art forms in the world and, despite not always being taken seriously by the mainstream media, the quality of stories and characters in the medium has received a certain degree of albeit dubious recognition in the form of a slow trickle of film adaptations. The quality of these films has been, to put it kindly, varied; a handful of good quality films but none which have shaken the world or received consistent critical acclaim, a whole lot more that are just mind-numbingly awful, and a few in the middle which are flawed but good fun if you like that sort of trash (which, I must confess, I do).
Nevertheless, the overall quality of video game adaptations has been improving in recent years and with ‘Assassin’s Creed’ – the long awaited film version of Ubisoft’s groundbreaking historical stealth-killer franchise – due to be released next month, we may well be about to witness another big leap forward.
So, as a primer for ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and a light-hearted final entry for 2016, I thought it might be fun to have a look at the best and the worst video game films ever made.
Were I writing this on my own I would be focussing almost entirely on their standalone merits as films. However, I would also like to take account of how each film performs as an adaptation of the original video game and to that end have recruited the most devoted and knowledgeable gamer I know, my wonderful partner Abi Williams, with whom this list has been co-written.
Our criteria are as follows; each film will be judged on its standalone quality and how well it represents the source material, with slightly more weight being given to the former category as this is still, first and foremost, a film blog.
Also, only film adaptations of specific video games or video game franchises are eligible for the list. Films which are meant to be viewed alongside existing videogames as part of the same story, such as the various ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Pokémon’ films, or those which are just about videogames in general, such as the outstanding ‘Wreck it Ralph’ or the gut-wrenching ‘Pixels’, have not been considered. This is not to say these films have no worth (see my review of ‘Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive’), it is simply for the purpose of keeping the list more focussed.
We would love to hear your comments on any video game adaptations which you think should have made the cut, for good or bad reasons.
5 – ‘Doom’ (2005)
A squad of marines, armed with oversized guns and questionable levels of mental stability, battle zombies and monsters on Mars. For a grisly, meat-headed, shoot-em-up horror experience; look no further. The marines are fairly unlikeable – this is not Karl Urban’s proudest moment – but it makes their systematic massacre all the more enjoyable. The plot is largely divorced from the original games – although in fairness, plot in the original ‘Doom’ was pretty thin on the ground – but there are plenty of nods to the source material and, for the beautifully tongue-in-cheek first person shooter sequence alone, it’s worth your time.
4 – ‘Resident Evil’ (2002)
Two amnesiacs and a squad of commandos embark upon top secret a mission to contain an outbreak of the deadly T-virus at an underground research facility. ‘Resident Evil’ is fun, schlocky horror through and through. Sadly it’s only loosely based on the original games, and apart from a few references largely goes its own way, but Milla Jovovich makes for a fantastic action heroine and the film proved successful enough to spawn its own divergent film franchise, due to draw to a close in 2017. If a cheesy zombie flick is what you’re after, look no further.
3 – ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ (2001)
Lara Croft, the only archaeologist more heavily armed than Indiana Jones, is pitted against the Illuminati in a race to find a mythical artifact that can control time. Angelina Jolie was the perfect choice for Lara; she owns it, capturing the confidence, swagger and charm of the first lady of video games. The supporting cast is solid enough, but it’s Jolie’s performance that carries the film. The plot is coherent and engaging, if a little farfetched – in short, entirely Croftian – and combined with several lavish and well constructed action set pieces, makes for a film that is terrific fun.
2 – ‘Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’ (2010)
On the run after being falsely accused of murdering his adoptive father, the King, Prince Dastan discovers a magical dagger which can turn back time. ‘Prince of Persia’ is a full throttle, family friendly, swords and sandals romp. The film shows due deference to the games, especially in the parkour sequences, and what changes it does make serve to flesh out the characters and make for a more cinematic experience. There are no Oscars being won here, but Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton make for capable leads, the plot is tight and there’s plenty of humour throughout. Slick, swashbuckling fun.
1 – ‘Warcraft’ (2016)
With their own world facing destruction, a race of orcs use magic to travel to the world of Azeroth, falling into inevitable conflict with the native humans. ‘Warcraft’ was one of the unexpected highlights of 2016, defying low expectations to deliver an original plot with a surprising amount of emotional weight and a cast of developed, interesting characters. The orc side of the story was especially engaging, playing on themes of family and culture, with Toby Kebbell’s Durotan proving to be the most sympathetic character in the film. One of the biggest surprises is how well the game’s cartoonish aesthetic translated into live action. It could have easily been toned down to a generic fantasy look, but the dedication of the design team paid off and, along with the many subtle references for the hardcore fans, demonstrates the respect for the source material which made the film a triumph.
5 – ‘Silent Hill’ (2006)
A mother decides that, rather than professional medical attention, the best thing for her mentally ill daughter is a trip to the West Virginia ghost town she’s been screaming about in her sleep. Horror ensues. ‘Silent Hill’ gets points for loyalty to the games – particularly for the delightfully creepy nurses – but not enough to make up for the wooden central performances, hamfisted exposition that fails to plug the cavernous plot holes, and the gratuitous torture porn of the final act that is just downright unpleasant.
4 – ‘BloodRayne’ (2005)
Half vampire Rayne escapes from the circus, but keeps the snappy outfit, and teams up with an order of vampire hunters to defeat the vampire King who killed her mother. Directed by Uwe Boll, a man with a special talent for horrendous video game adaptations, the game’s setting of 20th century America is inexplicably scrapped in favour of generic Ye Olde Europe. Add to this a nonsensical plot, laughable acting, appalling cinematography, gift shop swords and unconvincing wigs and you have one of the dumbest films ever made. To think Ben Kingsley agreed to be in this.
3 – ‘DOA: Dead or Alive’ (2006)
A ninja princess, a pro wrestler and a master thief, as well as some others that don’t really matter, are invited to take part in the world’s greatest fighting tournament. ‘DOA’ is hilariously bad. Nothing in the plot makes any sense whatsoever. From the cartoon sound effects to the utterly ridiculous action sequences, it’s crammed with moments that make you ask “are they really doing this?”. As a representation of the game it’s even worse, with the characters lacking anything beyond the most superficial resemblance to their in-game counterparts. They fight each other, and that’s about it.
2 – ‘Alone in the Dark’ (2005)
I’m still not entirely sure what the plot of ‘Alone in the Dark’ was. There was a paranormal detective, an ancient civilisation, something about experiments on kids and a whole bunch of monsters. Once again, we have Uwe Boll to thank for this incomprehensible drivel. Devoid of acting and plot, the suspenseful horror of the game is completely lost in this vortex of mediocrity, made all the worse by some of the jumpiest, most amateurish cinematography you could ever hope to see. ‘Alone in the Dark’ doesn’t even have the comedy value of ‘BloodRayne’; it’s just plain awful.
1 – ‘Super Mario Bros.’ (1993)
Two New York plumbers travel to a parallel dimension where humans evolved from dinosaurs to rescue an archaeologist from their world who is also a princess in dinosaur world. And if that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. Utterly ridiculous. Who would’ve thought that the most successful video game franchises on this list would spawn one of the most contemptible films of all time? Although that may have something to do with the fact that this is a ‘Super Mario Bros.’ film in name only. Apart from character names, nothing in the film even remotely resembles anything in the game. The plot is a joke and the dialogue so badly written that even quality actors like Bob Hoskins and Fiona Shaw, who somehow found their way into this shambles, turn in a tragically bad performance. For video game adaptations, it’s the first and the worst. May it never be surpassed.
Massive thanks to Abi Williams for her invaluable assistance.