‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and the History of Video Game Movies

The pixels-to-shit ratio is improving

Last year, videogame enthusiasts gawped and cried over the first previews of Sonic the Hedgehog, a live-action adaptation of the beloved Sega platformer series. The crocodile tears fooled no one; if there’s one thing gamers are used to after nearly three decades of putrid movie versions of their favorite games, that’s the pixels-to-shit ratio that translating games into film typically engenders.

The outcry spread to social media and was adopted en masse, leading Paramount to re-do animation on its titular hedgehog, proving that where there’s money to be made, Hollywood will take videogames seriously. And now that the Sonic movie has topped the box office for two straight weekend, it’s almost a certainty.

In fact, a preoccupation with games has grown in mainstream movies, not only with game-to-film adaptations, but with movies around and about games and their players, from Adam Sandler’s Pixels, to Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, to the rebooted Jumanji films, and the Ryan Reynolds-meets-Grand Theft Auto comedy Free Guy, due out in July.

The slate of other movies on the way, directly inspired by game franchises, include more Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat movies, as well as long-in-the-words takes on Uncharted, Minecraft, Metal Gear Solid, and Call of Duty.

Filmmakers are making better videogame movies, it seems. For every total misfire such as the Duncan Jones boondoggle Warcraft (which was actually a hit overseas), there have been unexpectedly good movies such as the aforementioned Jumanji movies, last year’s delightful Detective Pikachu, and that Sonic the Hedgehog movie. No one could have expected Sonic would have a higher Rotten Tomatoes rating than the last Star Wars movie, but that’s 2019-2020 for you.

Here are some of the notable (mostly terrible) videogame films that got us to where we are now: an era where not every game-to-movie is a total piece of crap.

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

 

Bob Hoskins and a baby-faced John Leguizamo played Italian-American sibling plumbers Mario and Luigi Mario (yes, their last names are “Mario”) in this baffling take on the Nintendo franchise that eschews bright colors and whimsy for dank sewers and a scaly Dennis Hopper as President Koopa. Dismal, dumb, with no charm whatsoever. Yet, somehow the cast includes Samantha Mathis, Fiona Shaw, Mojo Nixon (!), Lance Henriksen, Frank Welker, and Homer Simpson voice actor Dan Castellaneta as the film’s very unnecessary narrator.

Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat (1994, 1995)

 

Brawly fighting games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat contain huge casts of distinctive, colorful characters, already front-loaded with catchphrases and signature moves. What could be so hard about making that into a 90-minute action movie? Well… these game franchises are not known for having coherent mythologies or complex character motivation, and the movies are evidence that these stories hold up fine for couch button mashing, but not as pieces of cinema. No matter, the Mortal Kombat movie at least gave us a pretty awesome theme song that name checks its characters to a throbbing techno beat.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

 

Speaking of coherent mythologies, the makers of the Final Fantasy franchise built one of the few long-running game series that emotionally resonates with gamers and that typically manages to tell great stories spread out over many, many, many hours of gameplay. Instead of waiting for Hollywood to translate these ideas, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi directed this computer-animated original story that attempted a photorealistic look. Unfortunately, the frequently beautiful animation frequently fell into the Uncanny Valley, and the muddled, inert storyline that tied together environmentalism, AI, and spiritual energy impressed no one. Critics and fans also met subsequent Final Fantasy animated films such as Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children with mixed reviews.

Resident Evil (2002) and Silent Hill (2006)

 

An astonishing nine live-action and CGI Resident Evil movies exist, starting with the 2002 original, starring Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez. Jovovich has ridden the cash train on this franchise, making it her Kate Beckinsale/Underworld. The films are not without their fans, but none of them appear to hold a candle to the original games, which are some of the scariest ever made. Likewise, despite a few visually striking moments, Silent Hill can’t quite capture the genuine creeps of the Konami game series, which almost got a Guillermo del Toro reboot before Konami unwisely canceled the project. A 2012 sequel to the movie, Silent Hill: Revelation, was a quickly forgotten bust.

Max Payne (2008)

 

Gaming fans revere Rockstar Games for its Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption franchises, but its hard-boiled noir game Max Payne was a revelation in 2001 for its emotional storytelling and bullet-time game mechanics. The game inspired two sequels. The movie version was so turgid and cliched in its story of a bitter cop avenging the death of his wife that the studio couldn’t green light a follow-up despite the movie making more than twice its budget. Mark Wahlberg strains with a thinly-written lead character and supporting stars Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, and Ludacris can’t save the movie.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

 

The only thing anyone remembers about this movie was Jake Gyllenhaal’s dopey haircut.

Tomb Raider(s) (2001-present)

 

The rare case where both the videogame series and the movie series have had a string of pretty-decent-to-good versions all around. Angelina Jolie is very good as Lara Croft in the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and the prequel version from 2018 (just “Tomb Raider”) with Alicia Vikander as a younger version of the action heroine was not a complete fiasco. As with the games, the plot is secondary to jungle and cave action set pieces, but the first movie in particular did a fine job expanding Lara Croft’s world beyond khaki shorts and dangerous rock climbing.

Warcraft (2016)

 

Nobody expected this long-awaited adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s beloved fantasy franchise to be Citizen Kane, but expectations were raised when they attached Duncan “Moon” Jones to direct. The son of Bowie seemed obsessed enough with the property to do something intriguing, even at the scale of a big trilogy, but alas, too many big companies trying to get their vision onto the screen ground down this movie about warring factions of orcs. Critics and viewers dismissed it for being sluggish and unremarkable.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

 

Like the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, this one succeeds by being light on its feet, not leaning too heavily on its multi-decade mythology to alienate non-fans of the Pokémon game series, and by spotlighting an ace voice-acting job by Ryan Reynolds. Detective Pikachu keeps the story simple and emotionally resonant, renders its CGI creatures bright and inviting, and speeds through a quick-moving and engaging script. It was a hit, broke the curse of videogame movies, and will, like Sonic, no doubt have a sequel.

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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