Sunday, 15 August 2010

Hollywood, Press Start

Name a good film based on a book. Go on, there are loads. Lord of the Rings. Let The Right One In. Jurassic Park. Jaws. Atonement. Those are some of my personal favourites. You've probably got your own, but it doesn't end there. Now, think of some good films based on comics. Superman. The Dark Knight. Men In Black. The Losers. Spider-Man. Iron Man. Again, these are just a small sampling of films that I personally like which were adapted from comics. Yes, there are plenty of bad films that originally started out as books or comics, but there are also a fair few good ones as well.

Right, now name a good film based on a computer game. Um... Yeah.

The thing is, there's no reason why you can't make a good film based on a computer game, so why does it keep getting screwed up so completely whenever someone tries? Ya know, aside from the fact that they keep asking Uwe Boll to direct them, but that's a whole other thing. There are plenty of video game movies which Boll had no hand in, and for the most part, they're still pretty shocking.

Let's look at Super Mario Bros as a good example. The games upon which they're based are brightly coloured romps featuring a chubby, yet strangely athletic, Italian plumber who runs around collecting coins and stars in order to save Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser, a large turtle / dinosaur thing who can breathe fire and likes kidnapping princesses. Sometimes his brother, Luigi, pitches in too. The film though? Mario (Bob Hoskins) and his younger brother, Luigi (John Leguizamo), go to a drab, colourless, distopian kingdom which is ruled over by the tyrannical Kooper (Dennis Hopper), a Tyrannosaurus Rex which looks like a human. This version of the Mushroom Kingdom is populated by other dinosaurs turned human, goombas (walking mushrooms in the game, giant lizard men in the film) and a velociraptor named Yoshi. Take out the names, and a fleeting appearance by a bob-omb, and there is nothing at all to connect the awful, awful film to the game on which it pretends to be based. The only thing they got at all right was the casting of Bob Hoskins, who would be a fine Mario if there was ever a good film made based on the franchise.

But there won't be. Mario is one of those properties which it's next to impossible to make a good film out of. The games plots are kept deliberately simple (Bowser kidnaps the princess), and are merely another excuse for you to control Mario as he runs, jumps, flips and butt-stomps his way through another series of colourful levels. The games are, for the most part, excellent. No one's denying Nintendo know what they're doing when it comes to crafting a wonderful platform game. But it doesn't lend itself to a proper movie. The Super Mario Super Show, the old cartoon from the late eighties got it right, because it revelled in the bright colours and simplistic plots, and also had a sense of humour which crops up in most Mario titles. But a live action film just isn't able to do that.

And that's the thing with the film industry and the computer games. They're either picking the wrong ones to adapt, or when they do get the right ones, they're ignoring the source material almost completely.

Two other Nintendo properties are currently rumoured to have films based on them in development. One of these, if done properly, could work very well. The other probably won't.

The Legend of Zelda is one of the most popular and enduring series of computer games around, with N64 effort, Ocarina of Time, often held up as the greatest game of all time, even to this day. The Zelda games follow the adventures of Link, a young hero who usually (though not always) sets out on an epic quest to save the Princess Zelda and free the land of Hyrule from the King of Evil, Ganondorf. Unlike the Mario games, there's usually a very definite story running through a Zelda game, with Link's quest bringing him into contact with a cast of bizarre characters, and fights with screen filling bosses. Throw in time travel, twilight worlds, lands beneath the ocean, alternate realities and dreaming fish (no, really), among other things, and you might think that there's plenty there for a scriptwriter to be getting on with. As long as they're faithful to the games, then surely the Legend of Zelda is ripe for adaptation?

No, it isn't. The problem isn't with the lack of story, but with its central protagonist. While Zelda and Ganondorf both have well defined characters, Link himself really doesn't. This was done intentionally by his creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, the man responsible for most of Nintendo's biggest franchises. Shigsy made Link a silent hero, wanting the player to put their own view and character into him. Link is supposed to be you when you're playing a Zelda game, and while the more recent games have fleshed him out a little (there's a clear playfulness about him in Wind Waker, while in Twilight Princess, he carries himself with an almost grim determination), he's far from being a fully realised, three dimensional character. Any screenwriter attempting a Zelda film is going to have to fill in the blanks himself when it comes to Link, and with almost every player having a slightly different take on who Link should be, it's going to be impossible to make him a character that people are happy with.

The other Nintendo franchise currently doing the rounds is Metroid. Concerning the adventures of space bounty hunter, Samus Aran, and her battles against space pirates, rival bounty hunters and the evil Mother Brain, as well as the dangerous and nearly extinct Metroid species. The first game, way back in the eighties on the NES console, had a twist in the ending, when it revealed that this armoured space adventurer you'd been controlling was actually a lady. With that out of the way, in subsequent sequels (and prequels), Samus has gradually had her back story revealed, to the point that the upcoming Metroid: Other M on the Wii is tied heavily into her history and how she became the bounty hunter we all know and love.

Done properly, a Metroid film could be an epic space opera with a no nonsense heroine, space marines galore and a host of ugly, alien creatures getting blasted to pieces. But one with an actual, proper storyline. It also helps that Metroid has a cracking theme tune, which would sound pretty good done by a full orchestra on the score. Fingers crossed on this one, if it gets out of development Hell, it could be the film to finally change the fortunes of computer game movies.

The recent Prince of Persia film was an interesting example of a computer game movie. The original game saw you play the titular prince as you struggled to escape a dungeon and rescue a princess. And you only had an hour to do it. It's renowned for being one of the most fiendishly difficult computer games of all time. Later sequels introduced time travel elements and had the Prince struggle with his own dark side, as well as introducing Parkour elements which have now become a mainstay of the series. The modern Prince of Persia games have an element of fun, which, in fairness to the film, it captured. The film was a lot of fun, with Jake Gyllenhall running around a lot and Gemma Arterton looking very pretty. But it wasn't what you would call a "good" film. The story was... well, there wasn't one. The characters... well, they didn't have any. It was a piece of enjoyable fluff, but the Prince deserves more than that, and it's a shame that they couldn't deliver. Jerry Bruckheimer was the producer who managed to make a decent film out of a Disney theme park ride in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, so it was a shame he was unable to do so out of a computer game, something which actually had a story they could adapt in the first place. More surprising was the fact that one of the writers on the film was Jordan Mechner, one of the Prince's original creators. Maybe he should stick to the computer games.

The Street Fighter series of games should be easy to adapt, yet twice now, Hollywood has got it disastrously wrong. The games large cast of characters all have their own, interweaving storylines, but the primary focus is usually on Ryu, a martial artist who seeks to better himself through fighting, and his best friend and sparring partner, Ken. The two are targeted by M. Bison, the head of Shadaloo, an international crime cartel, who seeks to claim Ryu's untapped power for his own. Bison himself is being hunted by Chun Li, an agent for Interpol, and Guile, a United States Air Force officer, who both have their own personal reasons for wanting to bring him in. Throw in Akuma, the brother and killer of Ryu and Ken's master, Gouken, who succumbed completely to the dark power that their chosen martial art can provide, and you should have enough to make at least one decent movie. Instead, we first got a ridiculous film in which Bison (played the late, great Raul Julia in his final ever acting role. Tragic, in several ways) plans to hold the Queen of England hostage until the bank of England agree to replace the pound with his own Bison dollars. The UN send in Guile (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his team to bring Bison down. The film mangled many of the characters. Chun Li, played by Ming Na, becomes a reporter rather than an interpol officer, Ryu (Byron Mann) and Ken (Damian Chapa) become con men, Balrog (Grand L. Bush) is a good guy, Zangief (Andrew Bryniarski) is a bad guy, and Dhalsim (Roshan Seth) is a scientist working for Bison who mutates Guile's friend Charlie into Blanka (Robert Mammone). Right.

Still, bad as it was, it looked like a work of genius compared to the more recent Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, which featured Kristen Kreuk of Smallville fame as the wussiest version of Chun Li ever. This film seemed to stray even further from the games than the first one. Chun Li herself is a concert pianist, Rose (Elizaveta Kiryukhina) becomes the daughter of Bison (Neil McDonough) and Charie (Chris Klein) is nothing more than an annoying American agent. To be fair, both films did get some of the casting right. In a good film based on Street Fighter, Ming Na would've been a good Chun Li, and Michael Clarke Duncan as Balrog in The Legend of Chun Li was also a good call. Likewise, either Raul Julia or Neil McDonough would've been an excellent choice for Bison if they'd had a half decent script to work off.

Thankfully, we do have the animated Street Fighter movies, which are actually rather good. Street Fighter II is the closest to the game, in tone, storyline and character, and if you are a fan of the games but haven't seen it, your missing out. Street Fighter Alpha takes some liberties, introducing an annoying younger brother for Ryu and creating its own villain instead of using Bison, but it still has enough in it to recommend it to Street Fighter fans. Street Fighter Alpha Generations is slight in comparison (it's less than an hour long, and only features Ryu, Sakura, Akuma and Ken), but is again respectful to the source material, dealing with Ryu's clash with Akuma. All three are a damn sight better than any of the live action attempts. If Hollywood ever tries a live action Street Fighter film again, and if they don't hire me to write it (I would happily take that gig), then they should look to the anime, or the recent Udon comics, for their inspiration.

The Final Fantasy series is a bit different when it comes to adapting it to film. At first glance, with its impressive CGI cutscenes and complex, epic storylines, it seems like a natural fit. However, every game in the series features an entirely new storyline, with new characters, new worlds, new bad guys, and on and on. Certain elements crop up repeatedly, such as Chocobo's, the large yellow birds you can ride around on, and Bahamut, a dragon you can summon in combat, but that's the extent of it. So how do you make a film out of a game which is different every time? There are three options. First, a straight adaptation of one of the games. The problem with that is, the Final Fantasy games are pretty immense. To faithfully adapt one, you would need at least two films, preferably three, in order for it to make sense and to avoid short changing fans. Making a trilogy is going to take at least three years, but Final Fantasy games are released every two years or so, so by the time your trilogy's done, then you're already a game or two behind everyone else.

So what's your second option? Create something entirely new, but give it the feel and some of the repeating elements from the game world, and call it Final Fantasy. Which is what they did with The Spirits Within. In fairness, The Spirits Within looked incredible, and was ground breaking in terms of showing us what an animated movie could be. But the story wasn't good enough. I'll be honest, I do have a soft spot for The Spirits Within, and own a copy of the DVD, but it isn't everything you would hope. The lack of a proper villain (James Woods as General Hein is just misguided, doing what he thinks he needs to to save the world, while the spirits are simply following their instincts), no magic spells, and, criminally, no Chocobos, mean it lacks most of the elements which the Final Fantasy games are known for.

So what's the third option? Make a sequel to one of the games. Which is exactly what Square did with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. A film set a few years after Final Fantasy VII (widely regarded as the best Final Fantasy game of all time), it featured all the main characters, arranged music lifted straight from the game and continued the story excellently. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is a very good film for fans of the game. But that's also its problem. If you haven't played Final Fantasy VII through to the end, then Advent Children will look very pretty, but you'll be totally lost. It'll raise more questions than anything, and of course, not every film fan is also a gamer. Many people don't want to sit through forty or more hours of a video game just so they can understand an hour and a half long film.

It's unlikely there'll be any more Final Fantasy films, except maybe a few more direct to DVD sequels which Square put together for the fans.

I could go on, with film and computer game franchises galore, but if I do, we'll all be here for days. However, there are two others I would like to briefly mention.

First, Mortal Kombat. The games seem to have largely lost momentum these days, though DC vs Mortal Kombat was fun, but back in the nineties, the first live action Mortal Kombat film actually wasn't bad. It wasn't a work of genius, by any stretch of the imagination, but it did capture the feel and spirit of the games quite nicely.

And finally, there's one game which would make an excellent film. Back in the early days of the N64, a first person shooter was released, and is still today one of the best multi player games out there. Goldeneye concerns this spy, goes by the name of James Bond, who... Hmm? It was what? Oh.

Well if they can make good games out of films, they should be able to do it the other way too then!

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