Assassin's Creed and why Hollywood just can't get video game movies right
During a Facebook Live Q&A session on December 13, Ubisoft's Aymar Azaizar boldly declared the upcoming Assassin's Creed film adaptation to be "a milestone movie," concluding defiantly that "there's going to be a before and after Assassin's Creed movie for sure."
Aymar's declarations tapped into a decades long conversation over movies based on video games not turning out all that great, and Assassin's Creed was set to turn that trend on its head. Unfortunately, now that we have finally seen the film the only thing we can conclude is that Assassin's Creed has affirmed the contention that Hollywood is still yet to make a good movie based on a video game.
But what went wrong?
Assassin's Creed had all the ingredients to be a potentially great film. The source material contained the bones of an exciting premise (time-traveling assassins) and the behind-the-scenes talent was strong. Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel was coming off an impressive Macbeth adaptation, recruiting much of the same cast and crew, and actor Michael Fassbender was stepping into a producer's role for the first time, signaling a serious business approach to making this a genuinely good film.
Yet the final result was a mess. Dull, over-complicated and ultimately extraordinarily boring despite some exciting set-pieces and an engaging visual approach. If anything, the only "before and after" scenario relating to Assassin's Creed we can think of is that the film makes it clear that even with a strong creative team, Hollywood cannot make a good video game movie.
For over 20 years, Hollywood has been mining the creative potential in video games with varying degrees of failure. The gaudy Super Mario Bros from 1993 is generally regarded as the first major attempt to base a film on a video game and despite generating a moderate cult following over recent years it can in no way be regarded as a "good" film. In fact, star Bob Hoskins rather correctly noted in 2007 that the film was "the worst thing [he] ever did."
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s we were subjected to a torrent of awful video game movies, including Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Wing Commander and several Pokémon entries. None of these films could be remotely classifiable as good, with the best we could hope for being some kind of tolerable, late-night drunken, "so bad it's good" enjoyment.
As the years progressed, this self-fulfilling prophecy continued with Hollywood using every opportunity to cash in on existing properties with a pre-built audience. The only mildly successful video game movies from a creative standpoint seemed to be the ones that appropriated an existing cinematic genre framework. Silent Hill became an effectively creepy exercise in stylish horror, Hitman was a passable B-grade action distraction, and the Resident Evil series became an okay sci-fi, post-apocalyptic franchise.
In today's big-budget movie climate dominated by sequels, remakes and superhero universes, it is no surprise that Hollywood is doubling down on video game adaptations. If you are going to spend $100 million dollars on a movie then the safe bet is to know there is already an audience out there. The blockbuster business is not one built on risk, and it is rare these days to see big money spent on something that doesn't already have an established market. And with the video game industry bigger than ever before it is a no brainer to make more movies based on these properties.
Alongside Assassin's Creed, 2016 delivered us Warcraft, another big video game movie that recruited a serious filmmaker in the hopes of reversing the long-standing trend of creative failures. Duncan Jones, the filmmaker behind the sensational sci-fi films Moon and Source Code, took on the daunting task of bringing this well known property to our screens. Jones was a self-professed fan of Warcraft and, like Justin Kurzel with Assassin's Creed, was as far from a studio lackey as you can get. Warcraft promised to be an attempt at making a real, creatively successful movie based on a video game. Sadly, Warcraft was not the film that broke the trend, and instead it was a hammy, over-animated descent into fantasy nonsense.
So why can't Hollywood make a good film out of a video game? Ironically we have seen several fantastic films over recent years that have successfully appropriated elements of video games from the medium's narrative frameworks to its visual pyrotechnics. The best video game movies are actually ones that have not been directly based on games themselves.
The Raid, a gripping Indonesian action film from 2011, was structured exactly like a video game, following a police team as they fought their way to the top of a building packed with bad guys. With the big boss sitting pretty on the top floor, the film delivered a differently styled action spectacle as the team moved from level to level. In 2013, Snowpiercer utilized a similar linear-style of plot movement as we followed our heroes from the back of a train to the front, with each carriage offering up a new set of challenges and battles, as if we were moving through different levels in a video game before finally reaching the boss at the front of the train.
Other films have also successfully lifted visual tricks from video games, from the iconic side-scrolling, single-shot fight scene in the magnificent Korean film OldBoy, to the more recent mind-melting Hardcore Henry, which was shot entirely from a first-person POV, exactly replicating modern shooter games.
Edgar Wright's brilliant Scott Pilgrim Vs The World not only incorporated numerous retro video game aesthetics into its visual style, but structured itself entirely like a video game, with its titular hero moving through a series of fights with different characters before the film concluded with a big boss battle shot like an early 1990s fighter game. Even Jason Statham's amusingly gonzo Crank movies felt like the misbehavior of Grand Theft Auto translated to film.
If modern cinema is so consistently and successfully appropriating elements of video games then why can't they get direct adaptations right?
The spectre of staying faithful to the original source may be the problem. While video games often excel in creating extraordinarily detailed worlds, they purposely need mono-dimensional central characters for the player to inhabit. On top of that, the narrative throughlines of video games are not at all like traditional cinematic stories. Video games certainly have a beginning, middle and an end, but the function of that narrative is usually in service of moving a player through a series of challenges. Hence a focus on gameplay and not the generation of thematic notes than cinematic narratives tend to develop.
Warcraft and Assassin's Creed both deliver richly detailed on-screen worlds and dense mythological frameworks, but lack the type of engaging characterizations that we need from a successful movie. By committing too closely to the parameters of the game, these film adaptations simply fail to work as films.
This is not to say that you cannot make a good film based on a video game, but rather the process of adaptation is one where the artist needs to fundamentally understand the strengths and weaknesses of each medium.
The same rule can be seen to apply to books that are adapted into film. The worst films based on books are the ones that strain to be faithful to the structure or style of the source material. The best adaptations are the ones that understand the spirit and point of the source material and can translate that energy and those ideas into a new medium. There are a litany of terrible films based on classic novels (The Great Gatsby, The Island Of Dr Moreau, American Psycho) but the there are also some amazing films that repurposed their novelistic sources into a successful cinematic adaptation (Trainspotting, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Psycho, Blade Runner).
Over the coming years we are set to be subjected to a stream of movies based on video games, but there is no reason why this curse can't be broken. Movies based on Minecraft, Asteroids, Sonic The Hedgehog, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Rampage and Tetris are in the pipeline; in fact, name a successful video game and most likely it's currently in some stage of production. Someone, somewhere has to be able to get this right because one thing is for certain, Hollywood is going to keep making these things for some time to come.