Highlights (and Lowlights) from Watching 25 Video Game Movies

10:00 AM 1/25/2017

by Earl Rufus and Patrick Shanley

For every 'Tomb Raider,' there's a box office bomb that lost millions.

'Super Mario Bros.' (left) and 'Resident Evil: The Final Chapter'
'Super Mario Bros.' (left) and 'Resident Evil: The Final Chapter'
Courtesy of Photofest; Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures

There are few challenges more daunting in Hollywood than getting a videogame movie right. Many of them fail. Many of them fail badly.

Only the rare few are dependable box office earners, and they can have trouble being embraced by audiences beyond the gaming community.

In honor of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, ostensibly the sixth and final installment of the most bankable videogame movie franchise ever, it's time to examine good, the bad and the ugly the genre has to offer.

Below is an attempt to understand just what makes some of them hits (Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider movies), some of them spectacular failures (1993's Super Mario Bros.) and others not appropriate for polite company (we're looking at you, Uwe Boll).

  • Super Mario Bros (1993)

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    Directors: Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel
    Budget: $48 million
    Box office: $20.9 million

    The Super Mario Bros. movie is the most notorious videogame bomb in history. It took the beloved Nintendo characters and renders them nearly unrecognizable. It features elements from Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Land and Super Mario World, but it isn't based on any single game in the franchise, and ended up making less than half of it's production budget back at the box office.

    What worked: Despite all that, a lot of this movie is quite fun and has earned a cult following. The movie creates a compelling world with a (very) colorful villain in Koopa (Dennis Hopper). Even its concept of de-evolution (Koopa "devolves" princess Daisy's father into a fungus) is a fun addition to the Mario Bros. mythos.

    What didn't work: As a Super Mario Bro. adaptation, this movie completely fails. Mario and Luigi don't don their iconic costumes until well past the hour mark and the film does not borrow its plot from any game in the franchise. And don't get us started on Toad and the Goombas.

    Highlight: Surprisingly, comic relief bad guys Iggy and Spike prove to be fun characters and actually get the most development of anyone in the movie.

  • Double Dragon (1994)

    Director: James Yukich
    Box office: $2.3 million

    What worked: Sometimes you need to embrace the absurdity of it all to thrive.  If only the silliness permeated throughout the entire movie, about two brothers fighting a gang called The Mohawk, it might be better.

    What didn't work: The game has a fairly simple premise, perhaps a bit too simple: ttwo brothers keep punching bad guys in order to save the girl. But the movie borrows few elements from the side scroller game. While it could be argued it was a progressive choice not having the female lead of the movie be kidnapped, Double Dragon resembles so little of the game, that this isn't even necessarily an intentional improvement on the game. 

    Highlight: The famous quote, "Our friend died like two hours ago… get over it!" Sometimes, you just got to move on with your life.

  • Street Fighter (1994)

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    Director: Steven E. de Souza
    Budget: $35 million
    Box office: $99.4 million

    Based off Street Fighter 2, the Street Fighter movie features a deep bench of videogame characters — and some of Jean-Claude Van Damme's most quotable work.

    What worked: The costumes are pretty spot-on from the game, and it even attempts to create a semi-plausible story about a dictator (Bison, played by Raul Julia) holding hostages for ransom.

    What didn't work: For a movie called Street Fighter, the fights in this film are rather forgettable. The movie also attempts to cram too many characters into the story without having the runtime to accommodate them all. (This excellent 2014 Polygon piece explains why.)

    Highlight: Street Fighter is full of classic lines, with perhaps the most memorable being Bison's speech to Chun-Li about ransacking her village. "For you, the day Bison graces your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday."

  • Mortal Kombat (1995)

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    Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
    Box office: $122.1 million

    What worked: The star of the movie is the action. The film does a good job of balancing the fighting with story beats and character moments to keep the audience invested. It also throws in enough supernatural elements from the Mortal Kombat games to continuously raise the stakes. Seriously, how cool was it when Scorpion took of his mask ... and he turned out to be a fire-breathing skull?

    What didn't work: Product of its time, but the special effects, especially for the creature Goro, doesn't really hold up that well.

    Highlight: The Johnny Cage vs. Goro fight has always remained a treat — from Cage's nut shot to his “now you fall down." It is fun and brutal at the same time.

    For more, read our oral history of the film.

  • Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

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    Director: John R. Leonetti
    Box office: $51.3 million

    After the success of the first film, a sequel to Mortal Kombat was quickly greenlit and borrowed elements from 1995's Mortal Kombat 3 video game. Even though it is a direct sequel and picks up moments after the end of the first movie, many of the principal cast didn't return for the second outing.

    What worked: The action of the franchise continues to shine through in the sequel, but more impressively it began to introduce many of the more fantastical elements of the franchise — including being able to shoot fireballs out of one's hand.

    What didn't work: Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should do it. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is so intent on paying fan-service to the game that it loses the central focus of what made the original such a fun movie (killer fights and a somewhat lighthearted attitude). While given nearly double the budget, it was half the fun and would mothball the franchise on the big screen for decades.

    Highlight: Opinions will vary on this, but killing Johnny Cage, one of the principals of the original, in the opening scene really did up the ante of the movie and prove that anything could happen.

    Verdict: Reintroducing elements from the game helped it appeal to gamers, but the movie just doesn't have the strong connective backbone to make it work. Stick to the original if you want some Mortal Kombat-action.

  • Wing Commander (1999)

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    Director: Chris Roberts
    Budget: $30 million
    Box office: $11.5 million

    What worked: The movie has a potentially intriguing set-up, telling of an interstellar war between humans an alien race. It's a promising premise, establishing the threat and the distrust that exists among the species.

    What didn't work: The setup ultimately becomes a slog. The audience is repeatedly about the the dislike of the Pilgrims (the first human explorers), and it takes more than half of the movie for it to (sort of) come together.

    Highlight: There's a playful chemistry between Matthew Lillard's Todd and Ginny Holder's Rosie that culminates in a test of flight abilities, with their reentry into the space station. But this is far from enough to save the film, which bombed at the box office, earning a little more than a third of it's $30 million production budget back. 

  • Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

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    Director: Simon West
    Budget: $115 million
    Box office: $274.7 million

    What worked: The movie wonderfully captures the feel of the globe-trotting, puzzle-solving game.

    What didn't work: While Angelina Jolie is well-cast as Lara, the rest of the bunch isn't given much to work with, including a mostly forgettable role for future James Bond star Daniel Craig.

    Highlight: There are also some exhilarating action sequences, including a particularly fun fight inside of Lara's mansion. The high-wire work was top-notch and the action kept on building to a fun crescendo that's unusually good for a videogame movie.

  • Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

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    Directors: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Motonori Sakakibara
    Budget: $137 million
    Box Office: $85.1 million

    Loosely (and that word should be stressed to the point of shattering like a Materia crystal) based on the best-selling Japanese role-playing games, this 2001 film looked to capitalize on the commercial success of the franchise that had seen a string of hits on the first Sony Playstation console. Using cutting edge computer animation, the film was the legendary RPG series' first foray into the movie business and was backed by a monster budget. Unfortunately, it wound up being a massive box office bomb. Set on Earth in the year 2065, a milieu not used in a single game of the fantasy franchise, the film was so far removed from the games in both plot and imagery that it can hardly be called an adaptation at all.

    What worked: A surprisingly star-studded voice cast — including Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames and Donald Sutherland and Keith David in a pivotal role as Council Member #1 — did their best with the flimsy material. The biggest takeaway from the film, however, are the visuals, which lived up to the game series’ pioneering strides in computer animation.

    What didn’t work: What are the best parts of Final Fantasy games? The inventive, imaginative, beautifully rendered fantasy settings? The cast of diverse and interesting characters? Well, this film doesn’t really have any of that. But, one might ask, surely it still contains references to run-longing recurring creatures and characters from the games? Oh, one might answer, you must be referring to the beloved chocobos or the iconic black mages with their wonderfully quirky pointy hats or the badass summon creatures such as Bahamut, Ifrit, or Shiva. Well, as a matter of fact, no, this film has none of those things. But they did include a character named Cid . . . but they changed the spelling to Sid, presumably just to mess with you.

    Highlight: Going home, turning on your Playstation, and realizing that those classic FF games remain untarnished by the ghostly touch of this enormous pile of chocobo droppings.

  • Resident Evil (2002)

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    Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
    Budget: $33 million
    Box office: $102.4 million

    What worked: The setting is like a cabin in the woods on steroids, and the film launched the most enduring videogame movie franchise of all time. Part of the success can be chalked up to the charisma of star Milla Jovovich, as well as the the A.I. villain Red Queen. Its tough to kill and hard to argue with, as it has pure logic on its side. Keeping the scope small also allows for the movie to properly explore the characters — something that is not par for the course for a videogame movie.

    What didn't work: Resident Evil is devoid of pretty much any element of the game that inspires it. Ultimately, it doesn't hurt the movie, but as far as “adaptations” go, that's pretty big folly for faithful players of the game. At the same time, this fact also helped make the film more accessible to general audiences and may have contributed to its success. 

  • House of the Dead (2003)

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    Director: Uwe Boll
    Budget: $12 million
    Box office: 13.8 million

    What worked: A typical set-up for a slasher movie took a turn and morphed into a zombie survival flick — and it was great.

    What didn't work: This was also one of the first video game movies to think of incorporating footage from the actual games into a film. It's a risky proposition, as videogame graphics age quickly and poorly. Viewed today, these moments stand out as a major eye sore, especially during the climax when the film intercuts game shots with actual footage of the actors.

    Highlight: There's a standoff about halfway through the movie that shows all of the well-armed survivors face off against a horde of zombies, and it is thrilling to behold. 

  • Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)

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    Director: Jan DeBont
    Budget: $95 million
    Box Office: $156.5 million

    Whatever little magic the original outing managed to conjure, this 2003 sequel was unable to duplicate. Director Jan DeBont, whose previous credits included the 90s action classic Speed and the incredibad followup Speed 2: Cruise Control, has not helmed a film since this almost completely forgotten return of Lara Croft searching for Pandora’s Box. Side note: you know this is a foolish thing to do if you’ve read any mythology at all. Just ask Pandora herself.

    What worked: Angelina Jolie is great as Lara Croft in this rehash. Gerard Butler replaced Daniel Craig, but that’s hardly an upgrade, even if both of their characters are so forgettable that if you rewind the film after finishing it, you’d still be surprised to see them. Oops, these are supposed to be the positives. Well, Jolie wielding that double barreled pistol in that lab shootout was pretty badass.

    What didn’t work: The original Lara Croft film is not what most would call a classic, but at least it didn’t feature the titular tomb raider punching a shark in the face to hitch a ride on its fin whilst wearing the tightest spandex bodysuit ever seen outside of an 80s workout video.

    Verdict: If you’re looking for a female Indiana Jones who legitimately kicks ass, stick to the original. Here’s hoping Alicia Vikander can restore Ms. Croft to her rightful glory next year.

  • Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

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    Director: Alexander Witt
    Budget: $45 million
    Box office: $129.3 million

    What worked: The movie builds on the foundation of the original and cements Alice as a character worthy of her own franchise. It also incorporates more of the game's universe to make for bigger and more varied threats.

    What didn't work: Resident Evil: Apocalypse begins the film franchise's split-personality of trying to be its own thing while still attempting to tie into the events and lore of the games.

    Highlight: Nemesis and S.T.A.R.S finally battle, and it turns into a bloody affair with a fun Gatling gun sequence. 

  • Doom (2005)

    Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
    Budget: $60 million
    Box office: $55.9 million

    What worked:The Rock and Karl Urban are some great leads. Both possess that undefinable quality that makes them the perfect space bad ass. There's also a first-person segmentation during the climax that remains one of the gems of the subgenre.

    What didn't: The rest of the movie is mostly forgettable. Even the enemy design leaves much to be desired.

  • BloodRayne (2005)

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    Director: Uwe Boll
    Budget: $25 million
    Box office: $3.6 million

    What worked: Sometimes, capturing the spirit of the source material also creates a ceiling that you can't smash through. For what he had to work with, Uwe Boll does craft a movie that admirably tries to make a film from the material that transcends the generic vampire slasher genre.

    What didn't: The movie seems hell-bent on proving that you can squander any cast if you try hard enough. A movie featuring talent such as Michelle Rodriguez, Michael Madsen and Ben Kingsley has no performance that stands out as anything above passable. 

  • DOA: Dead or Alive (2006)

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    Director: Corey Yuen
    Box office: $7.5 million 

    What worked: There isn't a ton to the DoA videogame. There are fights and there are tiny costumes, and the movie gets both of those right. The fights are fun to watch — and unlike many previous videogame movies — aren't kept horizontal, with some spanning multiple levels. The movie is so ridiculous that it actually kind of works. 

    What didn't: The movie doesn't have a lot else going for it, but what do you expect from a movie with the questionable premise of four bikini-clad (and lethal) women invited to take place in a martial arts tournament on an isolated island?

    Highlight: Not since the days of Top Gun has a volleyball scene been so key to the enjoyment of a film. It's a fun way to play into the franchise's strange, volleyball-obsessed history.

    Verdict: Fighting games seems to be the one videogame genre that Hollywood most understands, and DoA stands as another example of a fun adaptation that gets to focus on some cool set-pieces and fighting styles.

  • Hitman (2007)

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    Director: Xavier Gens
    Box office: $99.9 million

    What Worked: Director Xavier Gens did his best to humanize Agent 47.

    What Didn't: ...but Timothy Olyphant is many things, but a believable Agent 47 isn't one of them. And when you are unable to take the main character seriously, the entire movie falls apart.

    Highlight: Getting a bit too meta for its own good, there's a scene in the movie where a character is playing the Hitman game.

     

  • Postal (2007)

    Director: Uwe Boll
    Box office: $146,741

    The action-comedy is based loosely off the events of the black comedy video game Postal 2 and attempts to recapture the game's dark bent — but only partially succeeds. It centers on a man and his nephew as they attempt to stop a plot from Osama Bin Laden. 

    What worked: The first half of the movie or so. It understands the humor and characters that it is trying to get across and does have some interesting gags.

    What didn't work: The movie isn't quite smart enough to sustain its humor for the entirety of its runtime. Postal begins to run out of steam before descending into straight-up nonsense by the end.

    Highlight: In a moment that is both self-aware and perhaps rewarding for gamers everywhere, the director includes a scene where he gets shot in the — ahem —balls. Before dying, he states, "I hate video games." Trust us, we all know.

  • Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

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    Director: Russell Mulcahy

    Box Office: $147.7 million

    Much like the armies of infected baddies in the long running series, the Resident Evil films just keep coming and coming. Star Milla Jovovich stepped into the combat boots of Alice for the third time in this dust-covered tale of a group of survivors traversing the Nevadan desert en route to Alaska. Naturally, the road trip hits a few bumps in the form of spooky mutants and monsters, animal and humanoid alike.

    What worked: There are some interesting plot reveals that allude to the video game’s campy mythology, including the shocking revelation that the Umbrella Corporation has been making clones of Alice. The film’s desolate, arid setting is also a win and harkens to the otherwordly, apocalyptic charm of the Mad Max films — not entirely unexpected given director Mulcahy is Australian. Alice’s fight with the tentacle-armed Tyrant is also just tense and eery enough to ride the fence between horror and action successfully.

    What didn’t work: While the film is fun and offers up lots of great action, it feels less like the games than previous entries and the Umbrella Corporation, the true villains of the series, take too much of a backseat.

    The verdict: It’s hard to be a third film, especially in a series coming up on its sixth entry with this month’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but Extinction manages to add just enough plot and a new setting to feel like a satisfying entry into the series.

  • Max Payne (2008)

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    Director: John Moore
    Budget: $35 million
    Box office: $85.4 million

    What worked: While it misses a bit of the game's grit, Max Payne makes up with it with a comic book-inspired visual style that lends itself to spectacular action sequences and gives it an aesthetic not usually seen in videogame movies.

    What didn't work: The pacing of the film was all over the place, with a slow start eventually leading to some amazing set pieces that then ending with a jumbled mess of a climax.

    Verdict: Go in expecting nothing more than a decent action film and you won't leave disappointed.

  • Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009)

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    Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
    Box office: $12.7 million

    What worked: There's a certain amount of charm in seeing just how bad the main performances can be. And if you're a fan of voiceovers, this movie will be your jam!

    What didn't: Even the worst of movies might have a performance that stands out, a set piece that's creative or dialog just insane enough to be compelling. Unfortunately, The Legend of Chun-Li has none of that. It commits the biggest sin a movie can: it is utterly boring and forgettable.

  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

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    Director: Mike Newell
    Budget: $200 million
    Box office: $336.3 million

    What worked: Thanks to the film's massive budget, the world is absolutely gorgeous and truly transports the viewer to another time. The leads (Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton) have fantastic chemistry and while their dynamic is a bit of a trope, there's enough charm to get you to the end.

    What didn't: Even before the first trailer dropped, the film was criticized for white-washing its cast, and that perception dominated the conversations about the film, which ended up being considered a box office failure. 

  • Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

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    Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
    Budget: $60 million
    Box office: $296.2 million

    What worked: It's a 3D movie, and love them or hate them, they do make for some visuals that were quite innovative at the time. This movie is chock full of those moments, including characters tossing their sunglasses into the screen. Speaking of tossing sunglasses, Wesker (Shawn Roberts) makes for a fully realized villain, with the first human threat in these movies to feeling quite compelling.

    What didn't work: The middle of the movie lacks any real punch. It clearly has no idea what to do with many of the elements introduced in Extinction, so it spends the early part of the movie simply fixing that mistake.

    Highlight: Who can forget that fight at the start of the movie with superpowered Alice and her clones storming Umbrella Headquarters. 

  • Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

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    Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
    Budget: $65 million
    Box office: $240.1 million

    What worked: While most of the sequels focused on merging elements from the games into the movieverse, this is the first sequel to look back at the original film and bring back elements from it. The Red Queen finally returns after being gone for so long, main characters come back, and alliances are tested.

    What didn't: There's a lot of ways to waste screen time, and to fill the run time, and Retribution employs some of the worst methods. The film starts with a slow-mo rewind of a ship (with its passengers) crashing from the end of the previous movie, before playing it again at normal speed. It's a strange way to start the picture, but it had to find some way out of the climax of the previous movie. Which at this point, has become a staple of the Resident Evil franchise.

  • The Angry Birds Movie (2016)

    Directors: Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly
    Budget: $73 million
    Box Office: $349.8 million

    Based on the immensely popular mobile game from Rovio Entertainment, The Angry Birds Movie brought the furious feathered titular avians to the big screen in this animated family comedy starring Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad and Danny McBride. The film holds the honor of being the second highest domestic-grossing video game adaptation of all time, just behind 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

    What worked: The film translated the game’s kinetic, high-flying action and pig-made structure destruction from mobile screens to theaters quite well. An all-star voice cast also delivered consistent laughs, even if they were mostly aimed at younger audiences, but the real success here is having Peter Dinklage voice Mighty Eagle, the imposing, stalwart overwatch of the birds’ home island. Bill Hader made a fine piggy villain, as well.

    What didn’t work: You expect a bit of potty humor from a kids’ movie, so that get’s a pass. What doesn’t is the film taking its sweet time to get to the slingshot, tower crashing, pig-bashing insanity that made the game a hit in lieu of watching a grumpy red bird sit through multiple tedious anger management classes.

    Highlight: Sean Penn’s growling, towering Terence finally letting loose on some nasty green hogs.

    Verdict: Sure, it’s made for kids and it takes awhile for the action to kick into gear, but the cast is so strong and the animation is so beautifully rendered that it’s difficult to stay angry at these birds.

  • Assassin's Creed (2016)

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    Director: Justin Kurzel
    Budget: $125 million
    Box office: $203 million 

    Even the talent of Michael Fassbender couldn't save this one, one of the biggest bombs of 2016 (when factoring in it hefty marketing spend). 

    What worked: Ahead of its release, some of its ambitious stunts were touted, especially the Leap of Faith, which did deliver a key part of the game. 

    What didn't: The wooden script didn't give much for Fassbender to do, and even fans of the Ubisoft game were left confused.

     

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