With high profile releases like Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed, 2016 was supposed to be the year that video game movies finally got good. Now that 2016 is over, that optimism seems almost comically misguided. Warcraft was a pretty yet lifeless mess, while Assassin’s Creed had none of the historical flair that makes the game series so beloved.
The latest flops — a list that also includes Sony’s forgettable Ratchet and Clank — reinforced conventional wisdom about video game adaptations. Video game movies will never be good because Hollywood is unable to capture gaming’s interactive spirit.
However, that fatalism overlooks one very important fact. There already is a long-running video game film franchise that proves the commercial and artistic viability of video game adaptations. Most people simply refuse to give credit where it’s due. But Resident Evil is Hollywood’s best series of video game adaptations to date, and that is not intended as faint praise. The films provide the template that every other video game adaptation should follow because they capture the tone of the franchise rather than the letter, and video game adaptations won’t get better until directors (and game studios) learn from that example.
And no, I have not been subjected to dangerous experiments involving the T-Virus. There’s a genuine shred of brilliance lurking at the heart of Resident Evil, and understanding it should be illustrative for other filmmakers. After all, Paul W.S. Anderson’s series is returning to the screen for the sixth (and presumably last) time when Resident Evil: The Final Chapter hits theaters on Jan. 27. No director gets the budget for a six-movie franchise over the span of 15 years based solely on charity or luck. Anderson is doing something right, and that makes Resident Evil worth considering.
So why has Resident Evil persevered when so many other video game adaptations have floundered? For starters, Anderson knows what kind of movie he wants to make and manages expectations accordingly. That self-awareness is the one quality that separates him from other, more celebrated directors. Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) was a hot young prospect before getting mired in Warcraft. Justin Kurzel directed Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in an adaptation of Macbeth that was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes prior to Assassin’s Creed.
Though both directors are talented, neither Warcraft nor Assassin’s Creed was well suited to the video games in question. Both films were too self-serious, refusing to acknowledge the whimsy present in the games. It’s certainly possible to make an award-worthy film based on a video game, but doing so would require a game that lends itself to that pedigree. Trying to elevate source material that is convoluted or downright silly is a fundamentally misguided endeavor.
The Resident Evil movies are free from such ambitions. Anderson is a genre filmmaker content to make genre films, and his campy style happens to be a perfect fit for Resident Evil’s aesthetic. Though Resident Evil is rightly regarded as a landmark video game, much of its prestige comes from its gameplay mechanics, which can never be fully replicated on film. The narrative, on the other hand, has always been gibberish, and that’s much easier to translate. I enjoy the Resident Evil games for the absurd mix of comedy and horror, and I enjoy the Resident Evil films for the exact same reasons. The Resident Evil films still feel a lot like Resident Evil games, and that familiar sensation is central to their appeal.
Above all else, that’s why the Resident Evil films are good adaptations. Though their cinematic quality is debatable, the Resident Evil movies are entertaining and faithful to the source material. That makes them successful almost by default. With the possible exception of Retribution, the Resident Evil movies are solid, B-level fun. They make enough money to justify their own existence independent of the original game franchise that inspired them.
In most circumstances, that would make them little more than idle curiosities, but Resident Evil has become legitimately fascinating because no one else has managed to crack that formula. That remains true even as movie studios lure top talent to video game projects and (more surprisingly) as video game publishers have taken on a larger role during production. Fans were optimistic about Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed because the movies were produced by Blizzard Entertainment and Ubisoft respectively, which implied that the films would be more accurate than previous video game adaptations because Blizzard and Ubisoft would ensure that all of the names, locations and artifacts would be transported directly to the screen.
That was more or less the case, but the movies still tanked because accuracy was never the problem. Resident Evil is proof enough of that. The main protagonist in the film series — Milla Jovovich’s Alice — is an entirely original creation, while most of the characters that gamers are familiar with — including Leon Kennedy, Chris Redfield and even Albert Wesker — seldom turn up for more than a cameo. The primary things that tie it to the game franchise are zombies, the T-Virus and the Umbrella Corporation’s bewildering prioritization of shareholder profits during the literal apocalypse.
It works because Anderson understands that the broad strokes are more important than trivial details. The source material needs to be recognizable, but if the main priority is reading off a list of character names, then there isn’t going to be enough room for an emotional through line. Ubisoft created its own movie studio in the hopes of becoming the next Marvel. Just as Iron Man and Captain America became household brands, Ubisoft assumed that the lore of Assassin’s Creed was so undeniable that gamers and non-gamers alike would fall in love with the property once it was laid out in a cinematic form.
The catch is that Marvel never stops to explain how magic and/or technology works in movies like Thor or Ant-Man. Ubisoft, on the other hand, felt the need to describe the Animus in such explicit detail that any narrative use of the machine got shoved to the margins, which is a complete inversion of how storytelling is supposed to work. The result is tedious, and a direct contrast to the vibrant historical tourism of the games. Assassin’s Creed might look better on paper, but a good adaptation needs to be able to stand on its own merits. Resident Evil stacks up far better against other B-movies than Warcraft does against summer blockbusters in a more expensive sandbox.
That’s the mistake that other video game adaptations keep making. They get caught in ephemera, thinking that a movie with more proper nouns is better than a movie with plot. In truth, good films are built around story and character, and in their own ridiculous way, Anderson’s Resident Evil films have plenty of both. Resident Evil is superior because the end result is closer to its admittedly more modest vision, and after six films, that deserves to be recognized for the underrated accomplishment that it is.
Of course, the greatest video game adaptation of all time is Takashi Miike’s Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, but that movie is criminally difficult to find in English. In the meantime, Resident Evil remains the standard bearer for video games in Hollywood. The output may not be highbrow cinema, but a competent genre flick is still more effective than a terrible blockbuster. Paul W.S. Anderson makes the best video game adaptations because his movies fit the source material, and that’s the benchmark against which all other adaptations should be measured.
Eric Weiss is a Toronto-based freelance writer and the Games Editor at Dork Shelf. You can find him on Twitter@Harry_Houdini.