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Warcraft, Halo, and the long History of Problematic Gaming Movies

A few weeks ago, famed director (and son of David Bowie) Duncan Jones went public with the news that he’d been given the nod to direct the long awaited (and long postponed) Warcraft movie. To those of us that have long hoped for a solid merger of video games and film, this was welcome news. Gaming has a storied history of terrible attempts at adaptation. Not a single movie based on a video game has ever scored higher than a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, including cult classics like Paul WS Anderson’s Mortal Kombat. The best video game movies aren’t even about real video games, like Disney’s Tron or Wreck-It Ralph. Jones’s debut feature, Moon, is a Kubrick-esque sci-fi piece with a well deserved following. I admit that seeing his talents applied to a popular franchise has me practically drooling.

Then again, there are reasons to be skeptical despite the announcement. The project has been in limbo for going on seven years, with big names (including Sam Raimi) sifting through it like dust in the winds of Durotar.

Warcraft is not alone in this respect. Back in 2005, Microsoft started shopping around the rights to a Halo adaptation with a little pushing from the president of Columbia pictures. The company’s initial demands highlighted the pre-existing divide between the two industries and their business practices. They wanted a whopping $10 million and 15% of gross, all for a project they would effectively contribute nothing to (no script, production, etc). Despite a script from the more than respectable Alex Garland, it took them several months to find a studio. Eventually, 20th Century Fox and Universal signed on, but only after negotiating a significantly more favorable deal. Since then we’ve heard names like Peter Jackson, Neill Bloomkamp, Denzel Washington, and Steven Spielberg either express interest or become directly involved with the project at high level positions.

Eight years later and we’ve still got nothing. The project has been declared dead and born anew several times over, much like the long and painful odyssey that lead to Superman Returns. At this rate, enough money to fund several full features will have been sunk into these projects before the cameras start rolling.

Mortal Kombat filmMaybe it’s the size of it that’s the issue, though. Reviews and a terrible sequel aside, it’s a fair statement that 1995′s Mortal Kombat was an effective proof of concept for adapting a video game. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but take yourself just seriously enough is an effective mantra. While it wasn’t an overwhelming critical success, it put enough effort into forging its character that fans widely appreciated it, and it did so without ages of preproduction. Halo and Warcraft may be so wrapped up in translating their AAA status into massive, polished blockbusters that they’re forgetting that fun should- no, must be the focus.

Of course, it’s tempting to let fun get out of hand, particularly when it’s coupled with financial success. Look at the disastrous direction of the Resident Evil adaptations. It’s clear that the filmmakers are having a lot of fun, and I can’t begrudge them that. I can begrudge them reinforcing every negative stereotype about video games by undercutting the storytelling in favor of visual effects. These movies make stupid amounts of money, and I say stupid specifically because I don’t understand how so many people could continue to be so stupid. Critics can be pretentious snobs, but when your franchise is averaging 26% on Rotten Tomatoes you’re doing it wrong, no matter how much money you bring in based on visceral visual spectacle.

Ultimately, the overly ambitious direction of Halo and Warcraft may not be a realistic future for the video game movie, but staying the course is not appealing. Instead of taking a giant leap, both industries need to focus on baby steps. Find directors who respect the games, but are willing to apply their own legitimate vision to the film. Don’t bring in massive names for the sake of bringing in massive names. It creates a web of obligation that bogs down production in favor of financial interest. If game publishers and big studios can’t untangle their own bureaucracy, nothing will ever get done.

For what it’s worth, I still hope Duncan Jones works out. His Warcraft movie would prove quite a sight. If I were a betting man, though, I’d bank on several more years of preproduction hell for that project, but the gamble’s a win-win.

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