The last couple of decades have been kind to the video gaming industry. The medium has seen a steady incline in its consumer base and, subsequently, in its production scale and output. The numbers supporting both console and blockbuster game sales are indicative of a booming industry with an enormous audience. Those numbers make it seem perfectly reasonable to release a cinematic adaptation of a video game property on the silver screen and expect it to do well. Franchises with a large pre-built fanbase are waiting for studios to adapt their favorite franchises into a film, such as the upcoming Pokémon Detective Pikachu out later this week. After all, fans these days are almost rabid and craving new content on a daily basis. However — and you know where this is going — it’s not that simple. For when it comes to video game movies, there is a curse!
The video game movie curse
There is an unspeakable curse within Hollywood that prevents the film industry from providing satisfying content based on video game properties. Why did gamers not turn out in droves for the Assassin’s Creed film like they do for the games? Gaming fans may be rabid, at times, for new gaming content, but they aren’t stupid either. Film studios can’t trick gaming fans to go see a movie just because a game franchise’s name has been slapped on it.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu might be the film that finally busts the curse. Early reviews and buzz for the movie are remarkably positive for a video game film. So, what is it that could possibly set Detective Pikachu apart from the rest of the gaming-centric films in the past few decades?
It all goes back to film studios optioning properties based on the value of the franchise. A valuable franchise is certainly a component, but it isn’t the only one. For years, filmmakers thought they could sell gaming fans tickets to their movies only on the merits of franchise recognition. Gamers, being the passionate lot that we are, saw right through the studios’ visions of a fat bottom line. The dead giveaway is a product that doesn’t honor the franchise it represents. Too many times we’ve seen films that take elements of a video game property’s narrative and then make something else with it.
Victims of the video game movie curse
The Resident Evil series puts this on full display. I get that there is a group of Resident Evil film fans or else the series wouldn’t be… well, a series. But by and large, many scoffed at the corny action spectacle with zero heart and all one-liners that is the Resident Evil films. Not a single overarching plot of any one film resembled the narrative in any of the games. Were the monsters there? Check. Were the game’s main characters there (eventually)? Check. Was the big bad Umbrella involved? Check? Did the horrific and isolated plot lines of any of the best entries in the game series make it into the films? Not at all. Everything that was present on the surface was meant to attract fans of the games.
Doom also promised fans of the shooter a bloody good time. It even starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson! The monsters, the UAC, and weapon staples of the series were all there. However, they managed to somehow tell a Doom story without acknowledging the existence of Hell and stuck to an easy and generic sci-fi plot.
We all like to laugh at the Super Mario Bros. film, but it was really a tragedy of the highest order. Gamers were taken from the Mushroom Kingdom to some cyberpunk, Bladerunner-esque future covered in snot. The translation between the video game world and the silver screen world didn’t even compute, perhaps being the worst example of the video game movie curse.
The point is that the producers who become attached to these video game movies are always bent on doing something easy or different. Films that even manage to keep the core elements of a game franchise intact like Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, Silent Hill, Hitman, Max Payne, the Mortal Kombat films, or any of the Tomb Raider films do so with lackluster enthusiasm. The makers behind these films often aren’t fans, and it shows. I’ve seen all of these movies, and they are entirely forgettable. I couldn’t even begin to recount the basic plot of Silent Hill or Max Payne and its major players.
I remember the moment that I knew the Assassin’s Creed film was doomed. It was when I learned that Michael Fassbender, the film’s star and also a major producer, revealed that he had never played any of the Assassin’s Creed games. A part of me hoped my feelings were wrong, but now it is history.
Hope — in the form of a happy electric rodent
Something different could be said of Detective Pikachu. The moment many heard of the film’s announcement, they probably reacted the same way that I did believing this film would be another abomination. This reaction was elicited partly due to the decades-old curse of video game movies, and partly because the idea of a live-action Pokémon film seemed too tough to actually get right.
The tune we all sang changed dramatically upon the release of the first trailer for the film. Ryan Reynolds didn’t even change his voice in any degree for the Detective Pikachu character. In fact, it sounds strangely reminiscent of his Deadpool persona — a place that seems to enable him to deliver his best work. And somehow, it actually works. As far as the trailer goes, the plethora of on-screen Pokémon, the Easter eggs in the backdrop, the soundtrack, and the personal story at the heart of the film help to blend it in with the Pokémon world in a believable way. Pokémon even benefits from being a world where many stories can exist.
The marketing campaign, largely involving the YouTube account of the film’s star Ryan Reynolds, has been quite entertaining. The cast and makers of the film appear to have had fun with the world they had to bring to life. It seems evident, based on early feedback and what we’ve seen in the trailers, that real Pokémon fans crafted this cinematic adventure. In fact, I can already see the possibilities for a line of films set in this Pokémon universe simply based on what’s been presented.
If we look at the big picture, the disconnect between the film industry and the gaming industry always makes the difference. It takes a crew of enthusiastic filmmakers who are also fans to really make video game movies with the quality that they deserve. Unfortunately, that perfect coupling will always be difficult to nail down. Unless filmmakers who are gaming fans truly lobby for the films they want to be made, production studios are simply going to buy what they think will sell and find a crew to make it (whether they’re fans of the series or not). Let’s hope Pokémon Detective Pikachu takes the box office by storm so that film studios can see what it takes to make a great video game film.