Can ‘Tomb Raider’ Break the Video Game Movie Curse?

Hollywood has historically had an exceptionally hard time figuring out how the Hell to adapt video games into live action since… well… basically forever.  By my count, as of Tomb Raider they will have tried 34 times already, plus however many animated features they’ve spat out over the years that have only proven to be marginally better than their dumpster fire cousins filming with actual people.

The first and, perhaps, most infamous of these was Super Mario Bros. way back in 1993.  And while it’s kind of a fun, campy mess when decontextualized from its source material, it is utterly baffling that this would be anybody’s interpretation of the nascent canon of those games.  What should have been a colorful, upbeat fantasy adventure somehow became a dour dystopia that took equal inspiration from the desert wastes of Mad Max and the urban sprawl of Blade Runner.  They even got some big names to star in it too, including Dennis Hopper, Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo.  And while it was some bizarre, back alley staple of my childhood, it’s really no wonder that it’s taken until now – twenty-five years later – for Nintendo to finally warm back up to American movie studios.

While none of these adaptations have been great, not all of them have been terrible.  In fact, more than a couple of them have been fairly decent.  Mortal Kombat managed to stay mostly true to the look and feel of the games, and although it was plagued by incessant and systemic writing and acting problems, it is foremost what these kinds of movies should be: fun.  The original Tomb Raider was a surprisingly fun action-adventure flick that found an unnervingly perfect lead in Angelina Jolie.  Silent Hill was satisfactorily atmospheric, even if its disheveled narrative never quite came together in a comparably competent manner.

Again, the animated features faired a little better.  I still own a copy of Tekken: The Motion Picture that I picked up when my childhood Blockbuster was going out of business, which is a fun and well-animated romp between an eclectic band of martial artists and what basically amounts to Jurassic World’s Indominus Rex.  Bayonetta: Bloody Fate is a well-made adaptation of the first game in that series and Dead Space: Downfall is actually an excellent prequel to the events of the first game.  And even though it fails on so many levels, its sequel, Dead Space: Aftermath is an endlessly compelling series of vignettes that ambitiously experiments with first-person narratives and shifting art styles.  Plus Batman: Assault on Arkham, a companion piece to the Arkham game series, technically qualifies and is a near-perfect Suicide Squad movie.

But, by and large, the point remains: video games are hopelessly difficult to properly bring to the big screen.  Part of this is the historic lack of narrative depth in the medium, which generally focusses on tight mechanics, inventive level design and the player’s ability to interact with the world of the game.  Another major factor is one of time.  Even short video games take upwards of twenty hours to complete, many take closer to 40 and some longer games can take hundreds of hours just to finish.  That’s far more than the 90-120 minutes that most movies would be able to spare, meaning that condensing the narrative’s timeframe is a virtually insurmountable barrier to overcome.

This is largely why I think that the first unreservedly great video game adaptation will come in the form of a TV series.  The compression factor is still there, but it is infinitely lessened when you have ten, twenty, thirty hours worth of material to work with instead of just one or two.  It would allow the narrative to breathe, for the characters to develop and for the action to unfold in a far more congruous manner than movies can possibly account for.  Imagine an Ocarina of Time Netflix series where each dungeon is a 1-hour episode, plus a couple episodes devoted to the pilot, finale and some travel time.  Fleshed out into a 13 episode season like Jessica Jones, with a creative team that knows what they’re doing, and it would produce something truly worthwhile.

As for Tomb Raider, I doubt that it’s going to quite manage to clear the bar.  The talent on display with it is impressive, with a phenomenal-looking cast, amazing action set pieces and exceptional settings, but the movie is likely to fail where virtually all of its predecessors have: the script.  As much action-packed fun as the movie looks like, none of the early reviews or trailers have given me the impression that they have a grasp over the mechanics of story and characterization that are the bread and butter of this medium.  And until a movie manages both that and the highly disparate lengths, video game adaptations will continue to languish as second-class movies.

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