Doom-ed to bomb

As video games embed themselves deeper into the collective consciousness of planet Earth, entertainers will continue searching for ways to capitalize on the trend. Financially, the video game industry has started to eclipse the Hollywood box office in terms of revenue, and people are starting to realize that games aren’t just games. Peripherally related game merchandise is becoming more and more common. You can see novels at Barnes & Noble that expand on a game’s storyline, game soundtracks for sale at Tower Records, and gamer-themed shirts at “trendy” shops like Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters. Gaming even has its own cable TV station — G4TV.

But what happens when video games make the ultimate big-media crossover and become huge blockbuster films?

Super Mario Brothers, released by Buena Vista in 1993, started the trend of video game films that bombed at the box office after being almost universally lambasted by critics and fans. The film took the nonsensical but beloved setting for Nintendo’s landmark Mario Brothers games and gave it a grimy, post-industrial twist with hammy acting from heavies like Dennis Hopper, Bob Hoskins, and John Leguizamo.

The old saying goes, “You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.” In the same vein, you can’t squeeze a workable story from a basic premise. In the early years of gaming, most games had a tenuous story, just enough to keep the player moving from point A to point B and completing the required tasks along the way.

Nevertheless, simple stories can, in fact, be pulled off with skill. The third highest-grossing video game movie of all time was Mortal Kombat, a movie based on a fighting game — a genre of games notorious for having little to no real story. In the Mortal Kombat movie, though, director Paul Anderson managed to keep the “feel” of the game intact while expanding on the story and creating a relatively filled-out, if not extremely cheesy, plotline. That was the key to Mortal Kombat’s success — if it had shed all ties with the game, it still would have made sense as a movie and could have met with moderate popularity.

It seems that not everyone learns from cautionary tales, though. The recently released Doom movie should have been an easy hit. Doom is one of the most recognized names in gaming history — it’s the ultra-violent first-person-shooter that jump-started modern PC gaming, and its long-awaited third installment was released just last year. The story of the games involves a portal to hell opening in a lab on Mars, with thousands of demons flowing out from it. Your job in Doom, as an unnamed Marine, is to quell the demon tide. With bullets.

Demons from hell and lots of big guns should be an easy hit in movie theaters, but Doom has only made back about half of its $60 million budget. Doom cut corners on special effects, and at many points the monsters in the game looked more impressive than the monsters on the big screen. A lackluster cast whose biggest stars were former wrestler The Rock and Karl Urban, who played a second-tier character in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, didn’t help either. While a movie about Marines fighting horrible monsters doesn’t exactly need Oscar-quality acting, the rules of any movie still apply. Studios need actors who can hold the audience’s attention with more than their biceps.

Doom failed because it gave up on its source material and it forgot that you can’t say “good video game movie” without good movie.” Have there been any video game movies that haven’t failed miserably? That question is two-pronged — movies can fail in the eyes of the game’s fans, and they can fail in the eyes of the box office. Resident Evil, based on the seminal zombie horror games, stuck almost exactly to the plot of the first game, pleasing fans but guaranteeing a less-than-stellar box office performance. The Tomb Raider movies have been astonishingly successful, but that is understandable for two reasons: the star power of leading lady Angelina Jolie and their huge production budget. While neither movie was particularly popular with critics, the films performed comparably to other summer action blockbusters.

Thankfully, there is real hope on the horizon for video game movies. Coming out in April, Silent Hill has taken extremely high production values to adapt a psychologically devastating story and imagery to the big screen. The movie has been advertising aggressively and may turn out to be the best video game movie yet. Next summer, the 800-pound gorilla of the game industry, Microsoft’s Halo series, will finally see the silver screen. The movie, funded by both Fox and Universal, will have Peter Jackson as executive producer, and his special effects shop WETA Digital will be handling the effects. Can Peter Jackson, Lord of the Nerds, finally convince the world that video games aren’t just, well, games? Time will tell, but millions of gamers are watching closely to find out.