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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Will Prince of Persia be the best Video Game feature film adaptation yet?

By Misopogon

Question: Will Prince of Persia be the best Video Game feature film adaptation yet?

Answer: Most likely.

Reason being: Live-action film adaptations of video games have universally blown.

The first video game adaptation to film was Super Mario Bros. (1993), named to most lists of worst big-budget films in history. That set a precedent for films marketed toward the G.I. Joe audience, like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Doom and Laura Croft.

Among film adaptations of video games, the highest Rotten Tomatoes rating ever is 44%, given to Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within (a movie shot in the same animated studio as its games, and copies little more than style from its namesake video game). That mark, which is about the same level as Daredevil and The Golden Compass.

After FF, the next highest is 35 percent, for Mortal Kombat (1995). That's about the level of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or Terminator: Salvation. That is the best a video game-based movie has come.

Which means, in order to define its genre, Prince of Persia has to simply not suck.

And I think it won't.

It hasn't been acting that doomed all previous video game flicks. Not with Dennis Hopper and the Rock, and other established stars all over the scrolls. And it hasn't been budget, with billions of dollars having been invested in the small genre over the last decade based on the games' well-established franchises.

It's been plot.

What's engaging about a video game does not translate, necessarily, to film. Video games are essentially fantasies, just like movies, but there is a dissonance of survivability between the genres. In a movie, you expect most of the heroes to survive, at least until the job is done. In a video game, however, you expect to fail. Players sometimes go through hundreds, perhaps thousands of "deaths" before squeaking past for ultimate victory. The odds are against you, so only by upping the number of trials can you progress; the difficulty is what makes progress in those games so satisfying.

But in film, the protagonists can't die and start over from the graveyard. I think this is the fundamental weakness in Mario Brothers, Doom, Laura Croft -- the games where "dying" will happen plenty of times in the video game. Translated to film, either the danger level must be drastically reduced (Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat) or the survival rate bursts the suspension of disbelief (Doom, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil).

Will Prince of Persia actually be a good movie? No. It's Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer, and if we get something as good as Transformers, that's about the extent of hope. Not a single person on that project has the kind of mind that produces transcendent art. Wielding explosions the way a pornographer wields breasts, Bruckheimer is assured to approve the meanest script that gets the job done, filling in the rest with special effects and trite Disney Channelesque one-liners until the film reaches a critical mass of summer epic functionality. I doubt it will go one inch beyond that threshold.

But it does have a catch that other video games didn't: the explanation for a player's multiple deaths is built into the story. Conceptually, this makes Prince of Persia an excellent test case for redefining the genre to a playing audience who are no longer children. In the game, the character comes into possession of a knife that turns back time, effectively giving him immortality from physical danger. The highly athletic protagonist then performs feats of acrobatic agility (and melee-range combat) to progress through the game, using his knife to "save" him when he makes a mistake.

A movie will not be able to capture the rest of the game's allure -- at their core, the PoP games are physical puzzles that challenge players to find the spot to make their next impossible jump -- but the knife itself is the ultimate deus ex machina for presenting video game-like odds in the much more serious realm of feature film.

Ultimately, I believe Prince of Persia will be the best of its genre, but only in the way that Babe Ruth's 11 home runs in 1918 were an MLB record. This will change.

There are a bunch of major blockbusters in the works, including Warcraft, Castlevania, Wolfenstein and Halo (some of the biggest franchises in non-sports video games today). None are worth getting overly excited for at the moment. But the prospect of a video game becoming a hit movie may not be all that far off. This has been predicted for a decade, and fulfilled: the first video game generation has grown up, and select movies with familiar themes, expecting to see adult content in them. How could video game movies not succeed?

If it's a question of taking the material seriously, I think that's happening from two angles: the movie genre learned with Mario to approach the translation seriously. Mortal Kombat, Doom, etc. handle their material at least as seriously as the comic book translators took theirs during the same period. Would a jump, then, to the level of Batman Begins/Dark Knight or Lord of the Rings* be impossible for the last fantasy genre? No. But they need the right material.

Which brings us to the second angle: video games have been growing more plot-driven. The short cut-scenes have grown into almost entire films within games these days. Story is no longer just something to throw on top of already developed sprites, but the inspiration for games.

Maybe Warcraft could do this. It's a franchise with a fanbase larger than any non-search engine website. Sam Raimi will be directing it, and the delays have all been because of unhappiness with the script, which is a good thing since it shows they actually give a damn (can you imagine Bruckheimer turning away a commissioned script when he was ready to start shooting?)

Ultimately, I expect Squaresoft (makers of Final Fantasy), who made the only video game translation to film of any critical value in the '90s, will be the real breakthrough. They say nothing's in the tank yet. But they've got tons of great material in their gallery to draw from (provided they hire an American to teach them how to end a story without a metaphysical manifestation of emotions sharing finger-energy), and were the first to, like film, focus on character development rather than odds-defying danger as their story's central intrigue.

*ed. The one other video-game franchise Misopogon is forgetting is the Halo franchise which has been in pre-production with Mr. Peter Jackson since LOTR came out. There have been so many competing rumors swirling around this franchise, but if it ever gets off the ground and actually gets made, I would put my money on a Peter Jackson-helmed Halo film as the best contender for Best Video Game Feature Film.


History of video games said...

I wished YouTube would post a blog to announce new features before new features are released. It gives us something to look foward to.

Awesome! This is a great feature.

Well... A logical and needed addition that people have only been trying to get implemented for three years or so. Yay!

I wonder how many years we'll wait before we again have a functional video watch page....