Are We in the Dawn of Good Video Game Movies?

The success of ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ could be a turning point for game-inspired films.

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Well, it happened. Forty-seven years after the first commercially successful video game (Pong), we finally have an actually good video game movie.

Sure, plenty of people love the campy violence of the Resident Evil franchise. And many will gladly rewatch the first Mortal Kombat movie for nostalgic value. And there’s no shortage of gamers who will watch the cinematic train wreck that is Super Mario Bros. for sheer ironic joy.

But last week’s release of Pokémon Detective Pikachu, with its 63% Rotten Tomatoes critic score and 85% audience rating, seems to have given the world the highest-regarded movie based on a video game. Most Pokémon and video game fans are raving about the movie, and well-respected critics are comparing it to Chinatown and Blade Runner. Even if you came away from it disappointed, you have to agree that Pokémon Detective Pikachu is, critically, the greatest crossover movie based on of a video game so far. It could be only a blip on the radar of video game fandom, but it also could mean that we are officially entering a golden age of video game movies.

Video game movies have had a very difficult place in pop culture. It’s been widely assumed by gamers, film buffs and the general public alike that if a movie is based on a video game, it’s going to be bad.

Bad video game movies didn’t sting as much when they first cropped up with Super Mario Bros. in 1993. Many, if not most, of the people who were interested in these movies (myself included) were young kids who were already deep into a video game habit. It didn’t matter that the movies were bad. What did we care? It was just thrilling to see games like Double Dragon and Street Fighter come to life. They didn’t have to be good. They merely had to have characters that looked similar to the ones in the games.

But as the largest demographic of people playing video games aged, the corresponding films didn’t. Those producing the movies seemed to think they only needed a recognizable title, vague similarities to a video game’s plot and an inoffensive story that takes as few risks as possible. Even some of the more recent video game movies are examples of this: Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed and Need for Speed.

The people making these movies seem to have been stuck between the rock of hard-core video game fans and the hard place of appealing to a broad enough base that the movie would make money. Several of the movies have done the latter; Warcraft earned more than $433 million internationally. But the desire rarely seemed there to craft an all-around good movie, which honestly is a little mind-boggling, since the video game industry is now the largest source of entertainment revenue in the world, beating out movies and music combined. You’d think that would lead studios to approach video game movies with more intelligence.

All this is why Detective Pikachu seems like such a bright, surprising spot on the landscape. Can this mean that studios will finally understand how to make a good video game movie?

While it’s easy to lean back, shut our eyes and assume that now every franchise we have enjoyed playing can now be accompanied by an equally entertaining movie, there’s already trouble on the horizon for the future of video game movies. That trouble is obviously the Sonic the Hedgehog movie.

When the first full trailer for the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog came out, there was an immediate backlash to the character’s appearance. The fan outcry was so loud that the movie’s director soon vowed the studio would redesign the character to make it more appealing to longtime devotees.

However, many, many people have pointed out that making Sonic look more like the classic Sonic wouldn't fix all of the film’s problems. Many people thought the movie, along with the character, just looked plain bad. From Sonic being an alien on Earth (apparently) to the return of rubber-faced Jim Carrey, many aspects of the trailer slowed down an already sluggish excitement about a Sonic the Hedgehog movie. The Ringer straight-up asked if it would “spell doom for Paramount Pictures.”

And that’s not the only questionable video game movie that’s slated to appear at your local cineplex. A Monster Hunter movie is scheduled to come out next year. A Minecraft movie (whatever that will look like) is supposed to come out sometime in 2022. And against all odds, an Uncharted movie is still slowly coughing up news stories, proving that it still might come out one day.

All of this leads to a question that only time will answer. Was Pokémon: Detective Pikachu a symbol of the changing, growing nature of video game adaptation? Or was it the exception to the rule that video game movies are invariably bad?

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