Finally rounding out the year’s lineup of video game adaptations is Assassin’s Creed. The popular video game franchise launched in 2007 and sparked eight mainline sequels and several more spinoffs selling over 90 million copies across the games. Unlike many adaptations, the premise, while far-fetched, provides an intriguing setup for a blend of sci-fi and historical action. After he is executed by lethal injection, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender; Shame) wakes up in a strange research facility with Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard; Midnight in Paris), a scientist leading the Animus project. The Animus, a giant mechanical arm that connects to the spinal cord of the user, taps into data stored in DNA to relive the memories of ancestors. Sophia and her father want to use Callum to find the Apple of Eden, a mysterious object that can control humanity, through his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), an Assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who is the last person they know to have had it.
The film spends far too much time on exposition. This is a common mistake in storytelling in interactive entertainment but ironically it was never an issue in the early Assassin’s Creed games. The games would have the player in the historical setting for at least 80% or more of the time, but the screenplay calls for the majority of the film to be in the present so they can explain the adversarial history of the Assassins and the Templars. The games threw you into the action and let the player, along with the main character, discover the greater story as they played, but the screenwriters here instead opted to stuff in as much setup as possible for the sequels that were clearly in mind at the film’s conception. The movie opens with an explanatory text crawl that is groan-worthy and further exposition is always just around the corner. Unfortunately, all this additional explanation only weakens the story. Each further detail creates plot holes rather than filling them. If the writers had been willing to leave more unanswered, the backstory would have been intriguing rather than perplexing or, in many cases, silly.
Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) is able to fluidly adapt the series’s action. Known for incorporating an acrobatic style based on using counter attacks, the fighting could have easily felt distant without the interactive element. This happened in 2010 with Ubisoft’s other major film production, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the signature parkour didn’t translate to the big screen. Combat is clearly sped up, but the increased speed isn’t overly disorienting. Kurzel also makes the unexpected decision to transition back and forth between Aguilar fighting in the past and Callum fighting through the same experiences in the present. Doing so adds an extra dimension to the action (literally) as we see how Callum is affected by his time in the Animus.
This is the second time this year we’ve had a talented indie director take on a large video game movie and the result is again a moderate success. Kurzel was able to maintain some of the harsh realism found in his previous work as he moved to this larger project. The historical scenes don’t try to emulate the lighthearted tone of Marvel films or the self-seriousness of the DC extended universe. The world feels dirty and unforgiving. He also has the benefit of an incredibly talented and, more importantly, committed cast. Even minor roles have their moments with actors like Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) stopping by to add gravitas to the screenplay. Kurzel isn’t able to escape the forced exposition typical of the genre, but the unique premise combined with his gritty staging of action scenes make the film stand out in the crowded blockbuster space.
At the end of last year, 2016 looked like it would be the year of the video game adaptation. Beloved franchises from PC to mobile to console were being brought to the big screen in ways that seemed like they could actually work. This year we have Angry Birds, Ratchet & Clank, Warcraft, and Assassin’s Creed. The first two are animated films, Warcraft is live action with significant motion capture, and AC is live action. Before we discuss this year’s lineup in detail, let’s revisit the history and background of these films.
Video game movies are bad. That’s not an opinion, until now it’s been an accepted fact. The track record of video game adaptations has become a running joke to the point that fans of either medium groan whenever news breaks that a franchise has been optioned. In theory, it shouldn’t be abnormal for a video game movie to be good. Games have great, imaginative settings and, like blockbuster movies, they’re often driven by spectacle. The problem behind this sub-genre can be answered with two simple questions: “Why?” and “Who?”.
Whenever a work is optioned, it is usually done for either love of the source material or potential for financial returns. In the case of video games, it has mostly been the latter. Instead of viewing a game as an individual piece of content, producers and executives have been making video game adaptations based on the built-in fan base. Everyone played Super Mario Bros. growing up so why not make a movie? If even a small percentage of people who played the video game buy a ticket, the movie will profit. But what they’re not thinking about is what makes these games popular. People don’t play Mario because they love bipedal mushrooms or a giant turtle-dragon thing. They’re fans because of the interactive element and how it makes them feel. In Mario, it’s the tension created by barely landing on a platform, but this doesn’t translate at all to a film. You can’t adapt gameplay.
Instead, producers use their regular toolkits. They take successful video games with outlandish premises and try to shoehorn in a generic script. Was there anything about the Need for Speed movie that reflected the actual game? No. It was a heist movie made because The Fast & the Furious is popular and Need for Speed is a recognizable brand. It didn’t matter that the franchise had almost no storyline or greater world development, because financiers were only looking at the large box office potential given the sales of the video games and the success of similar films. They took the existing name and forced in a basic plot so bland that no fan would have been able to guess that it was an adaptation without being told.
Video games don’t easily conform to standard storylines. This is true on multiple levels. On one hand, video games can be long. A retail game can sustain between 8 and 100 hours of playtime, depending on the title. Telling a story across this kind of timeframe not only allows for more plot points, but gives the player a chance to live in the setting and understand the characters in a way no regular film can. After spending 40+ hours playing Mass Effect 2, the side character Mordin Solus wasn’t just a character I liked, he was my friend. The mere constraints of the medium prevent single films from forging these kinds of relationships between the audience and the characters or settings.
Video games are not only story-based. If someone were to recommend a book and say “Just ignore the story” that would be a ridiculous suggestion. Unlike books, video games aren’t solely defined by their writing and unlike films, they have an additional layer beyond their visuals. The key to video games is interactivity. There is a tension created by the collision of prewritten narrative and player agency. As a character grows, the player is not just a viewer of the change but an active participant. They feel ownership over the events that have taken place.
It is the interactive element of video games that those adapting them to film most often miss. Anyone adapting a video game needs to look beyond the surface level a franchise’s features. Yes, the Prince of Persia series’s signature move is wallrunning, but shots of Jake Gyllenhaal scampering along a wall won’t have the same impact. It’s not just what a character does in a video game that matters, it’s how it makes the player feel. Wallrunning is about agility, power, and resourcefulness. You, the player, were able to outwit the precarious architecture and the feeling that results is one of nervous relief, satisfaction, and pride. These adaptations need to target the core feelings produced by playing, not watching, the video game.
Much of the issue stems from the types of people making these films. As stated earlier, there are some that look at a video game and only see the guaranteed fanbase, but there are also issues of familiarity, both with the particular franchise and with video games as a medium. A successful director would need to understand filmmaking techniques as well as the language of video games. In most adaptations so far this hasn’t been the case. Often times the director has failed on both accounts, neither being an accomplished filmmaker, nor having any understanding of video games.
The best examples of how to make a successful adaptation come from a different medium – comic books. Pre-2000s there were many comic book film adaptations that were unsuccessful. This happened for very similar reasons to video game adaptations. The people making the films did not have the understanding needed of both mediums. It wasn’t until this century that the comic book era we currently live in began. Unlike previous films, these were being directed by talented filmmakers who grew up with comic books giving them a deep understanding of the medium and how it was both similar to and different from film. Video games have not been around nearly as long as comic books. If we want to start counting with the Nintendo Entertainment System, it’s only been a bit over 30 years. Most higher ups in the film industry tend to be over 50, so the people in charge now likely didn’t grow up with the medium. They’re trying to understand something foreign to them and fumbling the adaptation in the process.
However, soon the kids that grew up on Zelda and Final Fantasy will be in charge of directing or producing feature films. Once that happens, I expect the abysmal results of video game adaptations to improve significantly. Will there be a Nintendo Cinematic Universe? Probably not, but as video games diversify and grow there are more franchises that are ripe for optioning and more people qualified to take full advantage of them. Each of this year’s adaptations showed promise. Angry Birds lacks any story as a video game, but as an animated feature, it wasn’t a hard sell to think that someone would be able to tell a decent story using those characters. The Ratchet & Clank franchise on the other hand has always felt like a playable animated movie so the adaptation seemed completely natural. Unfortunately, the film was unable to capture the charm of the games and by all accounts was generic and forgettable.
Warcraft represented the best chance at a good, perhaps great film. The lore of the franchise had been developed for over a decade and was expansive with many individual plotlines that would function well in a film. That combined with the rising star director, Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), should have created unprecedented enthusiasm, but it didn’t. Despite Jones’s filmography, the consensus prior to release never rose above cautious optimism. When it finally debuted after a long post-production, Warcraft was panned by most critics and bombed at the US box office (although it did well in China). In reality, it was an enjoyable, but flawed film. Jones is a fan of the video games and was able to bring the appeal of the large-scale battles. Sadly, the overall quality was undercut by the burden of establishing a Warcraft film franchise. It wasn’t a giant leap forward, but did move in the right direction.
The next shot at true vindication is Assassin’s Creed in December. Directed by Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the film has a good pedigree. Furthermore, the franchise has an intriguing premise and plenty of opportunity to tell a contained story without requiring the greater world setup that Warcraft did. Whether or not the film succeeds, it is only a matter of time until the right team, with an understanding of both films and video games, gets behind the right franchise to produce the adaptation we have been waiting for. Until then, the unique style and presentation of video games will continue to seep into films, like Hardcore Henry, and fans of both mediums will patiently wait for the day we can watch Commander Shepard’s signature dance moves on the big screen.
Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) may be the first talented director to adapt a video game to film. His first two films proved he could readily handle sci-fi stories on a small scale and with complicated plotlines. With Warcraft he has had his chance to use a huge budget and high end special effects to bring one of the most popular video game franchise (and a favorite of Jones’s) to the big screen. Obviously, video game adaptations have had a track record that ranges from mediocre to awful so expectations were low. I’m happy to say that while not revolutionary, Warcraft is an enjoyable ride.
The larger lore of the franchise is expansive, but the film focuses on the central conflict of orcs versus humans (also the subtitle of the first game). Azeroth, the human land, is at peace until rampaging orcs come through an interdimenionsal portal searching for a new homeland. They are led by Gul’dan (Daniel Wu; Europa Report), a shaman orc, who uses a wicked type of magic called the fel that requires life as a resource. He intends to capture enough humans to reopen the portal and bring the entire orc horde to Azeroth. Durotan (Toby Kebbell; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), an orc chieftan, begins to doubt Gul’dan after seeing the effects of his dark magic. On the other end of this conflict, the humans are unsure of how to deal with their new enemy. The orcs are hulking beasts capable of defeating a dozen men each. The ruler of a nearby land, King Llane (Dominic Cooper; Captain America), works with his brother-in-law and trusted knight Lothar (Travis Fimmel; Vikings) to quell this dangerous disturbance. They are assisted by a young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer; Pride) and the Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster; 3:10 to Yuma), a wise and powerful wizard sworn to protect Azeroth. Together they capture a half-orc Garona (Paula Patton; Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) who works as their translator as they form a plan.
If that all sounds difficult to keep track of, it is. Yet it’s not as confusing as it could be. Jones and his co-writer Chris Metzen (a lead writer at Warcraft‘s video game developer Blizzard Entertainment) do their best to not overwhelm the audience with the expanded fiction. There are several named characters and locations, but each has distinctly different designs. You may not be able to remember their names but by the half hour mark the characters are easily recognizable and the hurdle of introducing the deep Warcraft lore to a new audience has been overcome.
The script keeps the external details simple and instead focuses on subverting expectations of the genre. The minute orcs and humans are shown in the same movie, the plot can be immediately inferred. Orcs are assumed to be the bad guys, but the writers have added extra dimension to their motivations. As Durotan loses trust in Gul’dan and his deadly magic that slowly destroys the land, he attempts to forge an alliance with the humans to overthrow him and live in peace. These aren’t bloodthirsty beasts that kill humans for sport. They are families fleeing their desolate world in search of a better life. They want a home in a land that can be sustained, not just a new place to pillage. The internal conflict within the orc tribe effectively deconstructs their brutish appearance to explore their sympathetic goals.
Like the plot details, the special effects also have an adjustment period. The early scenes that only feature computer generated imagery are impressive in detail. The towering orcs are animated down to the shifting of skin and muscle over bone, giving their movements a physicality rarely seen in special effects. The trouble comes when they are placed alongside human characters. The modeled orcs fall into the uncanny valley when adjacent to the live-action actors, making the humans appear as if poorly superimposed onto an animated film. Fortunately, this disconcerting effect eventually wears down allowing the narrative to come into focus.
The narrative, however subversive, falls prey to the larger goals of the franchise. There is an overabundance of establishing shots. These vistas are clearly being forced into the film both as fanservice and to reinforce the grand nature of the greater Warcraft lore to unfamiliar audiences. While seeing locations rendered in such high fidelity will surely delight some fans, it will likely not have any effect on newcomers. Furthermore, Jones does not do enough to differentiate this story from other high fantasy. The standard tropes are present (mages, dwarves, elves, and plenty of british accents) but, unlike other successful fantasy like Game of Thrones, Warcraft‘s larger world appears derivative.
Blizzard’s goal with Warcraft is more than box office profits; they want to bring a declining franchise to new markets as evidenced by the free copy provided with each ticket. Yet, nothing about the film implies the expanded universe is unique enough to inspire such interest. There may be some new converts, but those will largely be attached to the movies, not to the games. It’s also clear that they plan to continue the films if possible. After a climactic moment, the story concludes abruptly, clearly skipping the needed denouement in order to allow for sequels that may or may not be made. This is an unfortunate development as the action scenes and overall story are well directed. The sight of massive orcs squashing humans like a game of whack-a-mole is thrilling and the characters, both orc and human, have relatable desires. While the goals of establishing the Warcraft fiction to create a new film franchise and entice new players to the video game are mostly unsuccessful and often detract from the overall product, Jones has delivered an action film that will satisfy longtime fans as well as entertain the uninitiated.