The video game movie is entering an unlikely renaissance. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu successfully brought the pocket monsters to life. The Witcher straddled the mythic quality of the novels and the adventure roleplaying of the games. Castlevania found a footing in R-rated anime. Sonic the Hedgehog extracted the blue critter’s teeth to become one of 2020’s biggest movies. The Last of Us is gearing up for an HBO adaptation, while Resident Evil has two different Netflix shows and a live-action movie in the works. The skepticism that once kept the superhero movie from reaching its full potential seems to be dissolving on the game side.
The renewed confidence in making video game movies likely has something to do with the people making them. The new generation of filmmakers grew up with the evolution of joysticks, cartridges, and console wars. They spent 40-plus hours playing a particular title; now they want to see the movie or TV version done right.
That’s why Ben Wheatley wants to make a video game movie. Specifically, a sequel to 2018’s Tomb Raider. The director of Netflix’s Rebecca signed on to make Tomb Raider 2 last fall, and while he tells Polygon that it’s “kind of in the mists of COVID at the moment in terms of what’s going on,” he still committed to making the film. The news came as a shock to his fans, who know him better for cult hits like Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, and the wicked J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise. But it was an obvious choice for Wheatley, who says he’s been playing games since he was eight or nine years old and only finds himself more and more entranced by the medium.
“We had a thing called a Binatone, and it basically had four buttons on it. I had Pong, hockey, light guns, and all that,” he says of his early days gaming. “Now I still play games: I play Counter Strike and I’m playing the horrific Factorio at the moment, which seems to suck the fucking life out of me. If I could go to a counselor ... Factorio just steals your life. I’m done for. I also introduce people to it like an evil pusher.”
Wheatley says the camerawork and 3D architecture of games, the unique language that sets the medium apart from cinema, has informed how he makes his movies. He considers his 2016 film Free Fire, the British crime shoot-’em-up starring Brie Larson and Armie Hammer, to be a kind of video game movie.
“It’s effectively a Counter Strike game,” he notes. “And I designed it in Minecraft.”
Yes, one of the premiere directors working today begins his pre-production work in the blocky sandbox. Wheatley calls Minecraft “the most user friendly 3D, CAD design” tool anyone can get their hands on, perfect for when you want to design sets early on, and bring your various department heads on scout tours, without spending loads of money. “When we [built the set for Free Fire in Minecraft], we actually got cardboard boxes, which were the same dimensions as the cubes from Minecraft, and then rebuilt the thing we built inside the warehouse. So that really helped.
As for Tomb Raider, Wheatley’s tight-lipped on what’s drawing him to the sequel, but as he said about adapting an 80-year-old novel for Netflix known best for a 1940 Hitchcock adaptation, he likes a challenge that most people would turn down without a second thought. The same logic may apply to the recent news that he’ll be directing The Meg 2, starring Jason Statham and a giant shark. The challenge of the video game movie, as he sees it, is obvious, but worthy of interrogation through an attempt in making one.
“Video games have trouble crossing back into cinema because they are born out of cinema,” Wheatley said. “But the the magic sauce is interaction, which you’re then removing back out of the game to put it back into a film. That’s the trick the back and forth of it, and that’s why it’s been very hard to make things successful.”