One of the big things that Hollywood has yet to figure out how to film is video games: an ongoing pet project of the industry since the early nineties. And although these movies invariably premiere to predictably disastrous results, there is a massive, untapped vain of modern-day blockbusters just waiting for somebody to figure out what to do with them on the big screen.
Traditionally, whenever people talk about “good” video game adaptations – such as they are – two projects invariably come out of the woodworks. The first is Mortal Kombat, a really fun and surprisingly well-envisioned movie based on the fighting game franchise of the same name. The second is Castlevania, which worked around the length issue inherent in the translation (ie, that video games are so comparatively long relative to movies) by not making a movie at all: instead, they made the four-part opening to a genuinely impressive Netflix series.
While it’s tempting to argue that Hollywood should just give up on video game movies and focus on video game TV series – I myself have shouted that from the rooftops from even before Castlevania debuted – I can’t help but feel that that would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Sure, it’s a monumental challenge and long-form narrative naturally skirt the issue in its entirety, but there are so many of these properties out there, and they are so inherently different from one another, that I can think of plenty that would be workable under such constraints.
Dead Space – This one’s actually a pretty easy recommendation because they have actually made a good movie out of these already (two, as a matter of fact). Before the first and second games, they made made-for-tv SyFy Channel movies to act as 90-minute commercials for their products, and both were varying degrees of awesome. Dead Space: Downfall was a prequel to the events of the game that set up the events to the same in a way that was both narratively and viscerally satisfying to watch unfold. Although decidedly less successful from its predecessor, Dead Space: Aftermath was a sequel that told the same one story from several different characters’ perspectives, each rendered in a completely different art style.
With those two movies acting as the proof of concept for this franchise, it should be deceptively easy to hammer out a R-rated sci-fi horror movie from these games. If Alien was famously pitched as “Jaws in space,” than this could be similarly described as “Night of the Living Dead in space.” Just throw in a few kick-ass action scenes and a few moments of amped up body horror and the rest takes care of itself.
Diablo – While you could hardly find a bigger fan of the fantasy genre than me in the wild, it’s hard not to be disappointed by Hollywood’s dearth of entries into it despite the omnipresent success of The Lord of the Rings (and, later, The Hobbit) movies. Outside of the occasional dives into Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the genre has typically been relegated into the realms of animation or magical realism (where the real-world is the main point of orientation and the fantastical elements are drip-fed into an otherwise mundane setting). The reasons for this are understandable enough – creating an expansive, lived-in fantasy world in live-action is prohibitively expensive in the exact same way that Lovecraftian horror is – but its absence in the cinematic landscape is acutely felt and creates a massive, unserved need that any savvy studio could easily make a fortune off of.
Diablo, then, is actually the perfect franchise to adapt into the big screen. The first game is set in a single location – the catacombs underneath a medieval church – and most of its enemies – which mostly include zombies, skeletons and gremlins– are the kinds of movie monsters that the film industry has been making on the cheap in horror movies for decades. At least at the start, it wouldn’t need expansive casts, high-end special effects, stretching locales or any of the other, costlier aspects baked into the genre in Tolkien’s wake. Plus it would be a rare entry into the fantasy-horror genre, which is good enough reason to greenlight this project by itself as far as I’m concerned.
The Last of Us – When discussing the idea of current-generation games that people want to see on the big screen, most of the attention is directed toward the elephant in the room: Uncharted. Descended from the perennial Raiders of the Lost Ark and second cousin to the already proven Tomb Raider franchise, it’s the kind of pulp action-adventure series that everybody wants to see again but rarely actually gets produced. And while it’s hard to argue against that conceptually, in practice the would-be movie franchise has languished in developmental hell for years and each new iteration of the project (the latest being a prequel starring Spider-Man: Homecoming actor Tom Holland produced by the struggling Sony Pictures) seeming worse than the last.
The same game studio that produced the Uncharted games, Naughty Dog, has another dynamite franchise that would be perfectly suited for the showbiz treatment. The Last of Us is a compelling, inventive and meditative take on the zombie sub-genre. Its fungal-based undead are a refreshingly different breed from the Romero-derived breeds that have been the mainstay since the late sixties and its characters and post-apocalyptic world feel as real and lived in as anything that’s graced multiplexes in recent years (an obvious point of comparison, of course, being 2009’s The Road). And in as much as it is a much shorter game than many would-be adaptations, and focused much more on characters and overarching plot than mechanical gameplay, it seems better suited toward cinematic adaptation than most other candidates.
The Legend of Zelda – I’m still not 100% sure if The Legend of Zelda games are good choices for the big screen. The games’ focus on globe-trotting adventure and double-digits worth of dungeons to crawl through make it an imposing prospect for even the most ambitious filmmaker. The protagonist’s trademark silence throughout the series (and a certain die-hard segment of the fandom’s near-toxic insistence that he stay that way in any adaptation regardless of the requirements of the new medium) add further wrinkles to the idea. And that’s not even mentioning its monolithic status in the video game industry, over which it has largely loomed for decades.
And yet, despite all that, I cannot help but be as enamored with the idea of a Legend of Zelda movie as the next guy. Even despite its challenges, there’s amazing potential in the idea and one that is well worth exploring in this medium. They key to a movie adaptation would lie in either shrinking the story down to a more manageable size (basically ending it after the first half of the games’ largely two-act stories) or blowing it up Lord of the Rings style (with three movies, filmed simultaneously, breaking up the multitudinous dungeons, boss fights and character drama across a much larger-than-usual canvas. If the former worked as the basic structural setup of Kubo and the Two Strings and the latter worked as the basic narrative conceit of The Lord of the Rings, than there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work here.
Metroid – If Alien was “Jaws in space” and Dead Space would be “Night of the Living Dead in space,” then Metroid would be “Die Hard in space.” It’s a one-woman wrecking crew running into twisting, claustrophobic locales (oftentimes in the subterranean caverns of alien worlds) while fighting against bands of murderous space pirates for the most deadly prize in the known universe (the titular Metroids). Aiding her in this endeavor is a lifetime of bounty-hunting experience and one of the most visually-impressive sets of power armor ever conceived of (right up there with Iron Man). Oh, and did I mention that her main on-the-ground enemy is Ridley, a creature literally described as a “space dragon” in its character bio?
Assuming a competent team of filmmakers are put behind the project with enough money to see it through to completion, there is no reason why this couldn’t be the next big action / sci-fi franchise in the industry. The current cycle of superhero movies proves that audiences are willing to buy into a protagonist who hides behind a mask (or power-armor helmet) for most of the movie and the enduring legacy of the Alien movies proves that there is a market for the kinds of inventive alien designs that this franchise has always thrived on. Complete with a stretching meta-narrative about the consequential costs of genocide (which began in Metroid II: Return of Samus), it has a lot more going on under the hood than many comparable franchises in recent years (namely the enjoyable Life and the disappointing Alien prequels).