The curse of the video game movie

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It's finally happened. A video game movie has an Oscar nomination. Sort of.

Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, an animation following the plight of a video game bad guy wanting to be a hero, is brimming with gaming visuals, characters, winks and nods, and was up for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar.

But is Wreck-It-Ralph really a sign that video game movies are finally being taken seriously?

Unlike Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Prince of Persia, it's not an adaptation of a video game IP. But its critical and commercial success arrives at a key moment when the global games industry is beginning its own assault on Hollywood.

Ubisoft has partnered with New Regency on an Assassin's Creed film in a deal which allows Ubisoft to maintain control of key elements of the movie's creative direction”.

It is not alone. Rovio is self-financing its own Angry Birds movie in a bid to retain creative control while JJ Abrams and his Bad Robot production company recently signed a deal with Valve to bring Half-Life and Portal to the big screen.

The video game industry has clearly had an impact on its big screen cousin. Visual nods abound in Scott Pilgrim and The Beach, and even indie director Gus Van Sant has taken visual inspiration from Tomb Raider.

But taking on an established games franchise has met with mixed to poor results.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most notorious examples of a big screen adaptation buckling under the weight of a games licence: Super Mario Bros.

Fans of cinema didn't like it, fans of video games didn't like, and fans of Super Mario Bros didn't like it. Even Mario himself – Bob Hoskins – wasn't a fan.

"The history between the two industries is one of two alien cultures trying to prove who has the biggest dick."

Jamie Russell, Author of Generation Xbox

In the years since, nothing much has changed. The Resident Evil franchise has proven itself as a solid money-maker despite regular critical bashing but hopes for Lara Croft becoming a fully-fledged film franchise faded when Angelina Jolie stepped away from the character.

In the meantime, films based on Hitman, Dead or Alive, Doom, Max Payne and Silent Hill have tried to buck the curse of the video game adaptation only to sink like a stone. And these are just the minority that actually got made.

2010 saw the announcement that Uncharted was coming to the big screen, but after going through two directors, the film has entered limbo with only the National Treasure writers on board.

Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski then tried to make a BioShock film. But it proved expensive and studios wouldn't touch it.

And the most famous example was the Halo movie, which broke down when Microsoft wanted equal to the film studio on the project.

What it came down to was a struggle between two very different industries that didn't speak the same language,” says Jamie Russell, screenwriter, journalist and author of Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood.

One is an engineering culture of hardware and software. The other is all about egos, razzle-dazzle and bullshitting. The history of the crossover between the two industries is a history of two totally alien cultures trying to prove who has the biggest dick.”

Michael Fassbender's involvement as both co-producer and star of the upcoming Assassin's Creed film signals a change in the calibre of stars appearing in video game films.

Whilst Van Damme is undeniably a screen presence, he wasn't cast in Street Fighter to steer the film towards Oscars. Mark Walhberg came to Max Payne from Shooter. Timothy Olyphant came to Hitman from Die Hard 4.0.

Fassbender has earned his acting stripes on the indie scene and has managed to make the move to blockbusters without starring in a ‘big, dumb' action movie. And whilst hiring Fassbender is no guarantee of critical success, it's a move by Ubisoft that signals intent to treat the license seriously.

In the '80s and '90s movies based on Marvel comics were a disaster,” adds Russell. Marvel realised that bad movies hurt its core comic's brand; it set up its own division in Hollywood. Marvel Studios exerted creative control over all the movies that followed. Which is how we ended up with X-Men, Spider-Man and The Avengers.”

By following the Marvel example, Ubisoft are looking like dodging a potentially lethal bullet: fan rage. By getting creatively involved, Ubisoft is that rare thing in video game movie production, a studio that knows its characters better than the fans.

"Filmmakers are battling with the studios, and perhaps also audiences, about what they want video game movies to be."

Lisa Purse, author of Contemporary Action Cinema

Lisa Purse, film studies lecturer and author of Contemporary Action Cinema and Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema feels that the best video game movies are those detached from any pre-existing license.

I think filmmakers are battling with the studios and perhaps also audiences about what they want video game movies to be – are these B-movie extravaganzas planted firmly in a fantasy universe or major blockbusters withrobust narratives to match their visual spectacle, or more experimental evocations of the gaming experience?” asks Purse.

It seems to me that a film cannot be all of these things, but many times this is what the studios expect from such films.”

Interestingly that feel of a video game has on the whole been much more successfully achieved in films that are not adaptations of video games – I'm thinking of the long mobile takes in Children of Menor Cloverfield, for example, or the sequences of perceptual disorientation in The Hurt Locker.”

It's a view backed up by Wreck-It-Ralph director Rich Moore: Had we tried to make this movie about a character like Donkey Kong, there's so much mythology and baggage attached to pre-existing titles that I feel that someone would be disappointed. Someone would be like ‘Oh no, you missed the point. He wouldn't do that.'

If you were trying to really please the fans, would it get so unwieldy that people who've never heard of it felt that things were going over their heads?”

Ubisoft and co have a lot to gain if they can pull off a successful video game movie. It could increase brand recognition to a whole new audience on a huge scale.

What we're seeing is the coming of age of video game companies as "entertainment" companies,” says Russell.

Ubisoft has already taken Assassin's Creed into novels, comics, short films and they understand that today's consumers want a complete entertainment experience.

We're going to see big changes in the next five years as video game companies step up to the plate and challenge Hollywood to take them seriously, or simply come into their own as entertainment companies and make their own movies. If you're a fan of games and movies, it's an exciting time and it's going to break the curse of video game movies forever.”