Adapting video games into films should not be this hard. Books and plays are turned into good movies on a nearly monthly basis. Christ, even direction is a form of adaptation. The director has both the right and the necessity to cherry-pick and omit from a written screenplay. There is no such thing as “an original film.”
And yet, like trying to pole-vault without an actual pole, the evolutionary link between video game and film has yet to be cleared.
Now to be fair, I liked Silent Hill. It was an atmosphere engine which would have been a whole lot better if an actual script was used.
And as I may have unwisely mentioned in my review of Max Payne at filmarcade.net a week ago, I liked the Doom movie. Don’t blame me… The game came out when I was eight… We were on an anti-poverty board in Chicago together… The parties were hosted by the Annenbergs… SHUT UP!
But other than those, we have been treated to miserable failure after miserable failure. Super Mario Bros., both Tomb Raider films, anything with Uwe Boll’s name on it, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter. They all suck. Granted, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came close to succeeding, but it failed to adhere to the spirit of the games. Namely, there were no she-dudes, giant chickens, or EEEEEEEENDLLEEEEEEEESSSSSSSS levelling-up.
But there is no simple majority yet to convene on a video game film. No 51% on the tomatometer, which, after the atrocities listed above, would be a victory.
And when I mentioned that last week’s Max Payne was the best chance yet of a good video game movie being made (and thus, given the film’s poor quality, the biggest blown opportunity), I was not kidding. This was heartbreaking to anyone who has played the game and loved it, as apparently a lot of people did, since it made enough money to made into a movie.
If you consider anything I have written even remotely thoughtful, I urge you strongly to pick up a copy of the Max Payne game. You can get the PC version for less than ten bucks at Office Depot. The game is eight years old, so unless you’re reading this article on a Commodore 64, your computer has the technical aspects to play it.
Yes, when you play it, it is a John Woo film simulator. But it is so faithful that you could almost imagine John Woo signing off on it. In fact, when John Woo came out with his own video game, Stranglehold (which was supposed to be a semi-sequel to Hard Boiled, with Chow-Yun Fat reprising his role as Inspector Tequila), a lot of game critics took it to task because it bore too much of a resemblance to, you guessed it, Max Payne.
But more than that, Max Payne the game had heart to spare. You played as a man with nothing to lose and without a friend in the world, who lets his lesser angels consume him in a mad quest for revenge. Through sheer immersion, you identified and empathized with Max’s character and grew to hate the forces of fate aligning against him. And the cut-scenes (which take the form of graphic novel panels) are strongly and sorrowfully written, getting inside Max’s head with the kind of sad and laconic virtuosity that Raymond Chandler used to get inside the head of Philip Marlowe.
I mentioned that I used a quote from the sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, to open my review of No Country For Old Men on myspace. For those of you that don’t want to bust ass trying to find it, here is the quote in full…
“There are no choices. Nothing but a straight line. The illusion comes afterwards, when you ask ‘Why me?’ and ‘What if?’. When you look back and see the branches, like a pruned bonsai tree, or forked lightning. If you had done something differently, it wouldn’t be you, it would be someone else looking back, asking a different set of questions.”
There is nothing — NOTHING! — in the film version of Max Payne that suggests that level of depth of writing. Come to think of it, I don’t think anyone involved could have read it properly. They might make it a couple of words in, but then need help. They might even need to lie down.
To get my nitpicky little fanboy gripes out of the way, the game characters of Vinnie Gognitti, Alfred Woden, and Vladimir Lem have been omitted from the film. Being as they’re pretty much the characters that propel the game into its sequel, the seemingly inevitable Max Payne 2 movie will not be an adaptation of the game, but rather some kind of expensive fan-fiction.
But that is a pittance to the greater problem of the film, which is that it truly is an exposition-laden, poorly executed, boring shootout that lasts for two hours. In their efforts to bring Max Payne to the screen, screenwriter Beau Thorne and director John Moore have effectively dehumanized Payne, taking not only the game as a victim, but also Mark Wahlberg, who was the man tasked to bring him to life.
A myspace friend of mine, Bobby the Inglorious Bastard, commented on my review of the film that “Hollywood needs to stop trying to make Mark Wahlberg an action hero. Let the man be an actor.” Which makes the failure of the film all the more frustrating. Had the film been done right, Wahlberg could have done exactly that.
But perhaps the most disastrous move the film could have made is in the scene that leads to the violent climax. Max, dragging himself out of frozen water, beaches himself on a dock. He reaches into the pocket of his leather jacket and finds a vial of the drug Valkyr, that everyone is killing each other over. Faced with the prospect of freezing to death, Max opens the vial and takes the drug. This makes him near-invulnerable and he hallucinates.
Now I know that the film isn’t advocating drug use. You know that. It’s just a movie and it is, after all, just pretend.
But not everyone is as smart as you or I. Some nutjob like Jack Thompson (the now disbarred Florida lawyer who tried with all of his black heart and pea-brain to get the games Bully and Grand Theft Auto IV banned) can look at this and say that video games are trying to get our kids to use drugs. They can look at the movie as a representation of the game and place the blame there. After everything else gamers and game developers have to put up with from Fox News and other right-wing censorship flag-wavers, they have to put up with THIS, too?
Also grist for that particular mill is John Moore’s public battle to bring the film in at a PG-13. He wanted kids to watch it!
It is one of the greater ironies that when Max takes the drug in the game (which was administered to him in an overdose by the game’s villains before he is left in an alley to die), the result isn’t that he becomes superhuman. The result is a dream sequence that is a colossal pain in the ass to get through.
The dream of a simple majority liking a video game may be a long time off. Video game movies will continue to be at least semi-ubiquitous because, like Christian-themed films, they have the power to lure in viewers on opening weekend who wouldn’t otherwise go to movies. After that, though, everyone is on their own regardless of quality. Video games are a billion dollar industry, they’re bound to bring in at least someone.
It will be a long time off, until the people who believe in games come of age and get film degrees and set out to put the wrong things right. Kind of how comic book fans came of age and gave us Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. But therein lies the rub. Those kids, when they come of age? They might see fit to just cut out the middle man and get jobs making games themselves. And thus, this cycle of good games and shitty movies may never end.
Yes, I know we have Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia film to look forward to, as well as Gore Verbinski’s Bioshock…
But apparently, there is also an adaptation of The Sims on the horizon.
And that simpleton Brett Ratner has rumbled that he’d like to make a Guitar Hero movie.
God help us all.