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Video game movies get no respect.
They’re panned by critics, face abuse from fans and only the rarest of them actually make money. Yet, even the worst of these movies have those who will defend them to the death — flaws and all.
With Alicia Vikander’s new Tomb Raider actually getting decent reviews (by video game movie standards), the team at Heat Vision decided to look back on their picks for what deserves to be considered the best of the genre.
Surf Ninjas (1993)
Rotten Tomatoes: 12 percent
Box office: $4.9 million
This aptly titled 1993 action movie has earned a respectable 12 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but those stodgy reviews clearly don’t see what the 7-year-old version of me saw, leading a 30-year-old version of me to own two copies of this flick on DVD. Surf Ninjas features the Tone Loc and a 30-year-old Rob Schneider inexplicably playing a redheaded teenage sidekick in an ensemble that defies logic. My typical pitch for this movie stops there, because no further motivation should be needed. But there’s more. Surf Ninjas is precisely as advertised: Two brothers, clad in tie dye and overalls like any self-respecting ‘90s teenagers, find out they’re actually princes of a made-up-for-the-movie Asian nation and they set out to save it with a young Kelly Hu and some pluck.
Lucky for them, the younger brother, a seer, discovers he can control their ninja battles using a video game on his Sega Game Gear. Sega even sold a version of this game in real life. The fight scenes are hysterical, the made-up island country is absurd and, yes, the ninjas do surf on handmade surfboards to fight the enemy … Leslie Nielsen. — Jennifer Konerman
Street Fighter (1994)
Rotten Tomatoes: 18 percent
Box office: $99.4 million
With box-office hits like the effete Four Weddings and a Funeral, the campy deliciousness of Interview With a Vampire and the head-scratching travesty that was The Mask, 1994 will not be remembered as a banner year for Hollywood. However, in a sea of mediocrity, there was an island of mad brilliance in the shape of Street Fighter: The Movie. Yes, Capcom’s iconic video game was finally on the big screen and on paper it had all the ingredients to be a monster hit. Toplining the bill, you had peak Jean-Claude Van Damme coming off the back of a hat trick of classics including Universal Soldier, the mullet-infused snake-punching Hard Target and future-mullet Timecop (perhaps the greatest run of action films by a Belgian ever), the always excellent Raul Julia in his final film role quite clearly picking up a paycheck and chewing the scenery, the dependably villainous Wes Studi from The Last of the Mohicans (Why does Magua hate the Grey Hair so much?) and crikey dingoes Kylie bloody Minogue!
Beyond the stars, you had the ever-so-slightly racist Street Fighter characters that the world had fallen in love with including Zangief, Vega, E. Honda, and, of course, Ryu and Ken and all their homoerotic frisson disguised as competitiveness you totally didn’t spot as a child. What about the film? Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s patchy at best, nonsensical at worst, primarily as the filmmakers tried to add a grounded geopolitical story to the ass-kicking. There’s something about JCVD being a sort-of leader of U.N.-like peacekeepers and Bison (Julia) being a drug lord akin to Pablo Escobar who is spending his ill-gotten gains on supersoldier R&D for some reason rather than wine, women and song. Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. More fatally for the fanboys, they also didn’t overtly include any of the special moves like Guile’s Sonic Boom or Ryu’s Hadouken (they are in there but obliquely and no one ever says the immortal words from the video game). Watching it now, it probably does suck as a film, but as a young dumb child I was always going to love a film that was about something I spent countless hours playing every day. It was everything in my eyes and it set (yoga) fire to all else released in 1994. — Abid Rahman
Mortal Kombat (1995)
Rotten Tomatoes: 34 percent
Box office: $122.1 million
What if I told you there’s a movie that not only boasts the greatest soundtrack of all time, but also includes a scene in which a four-armed animatronic puppet gets punched in the nuts and proceeds to fall off a cliff after our hero utters the catchphrase, “This is where you fall down”? Welcome to Mortal Kombat, the first bona fide video game movie hit. It really has it all, including a theme song that reminds you of what the characters are named. Sure, it got terrible reviews, but it held the No. 1 spot at the box office three weekends in a row — an accomplishment that few films achieve these days. Unlike competitor Street Fighter, it doesn’t concoct some sort of plot (generally the reason these video game movies are so bad). Instead, it puts three charismatic leads into a martial arts tournament for the fate of the world — which is basically the premise of the video game, too.
The movie kicks ass, in part because lead Robin Shou (Liu Kang) actually could do his own stunts — and he pushed his castmates to follow suit — even when Linden Ashby (Johnny Cage) was peeing blood. Speaking of which, the story behind the making of Mortal Kombat — which I went deep on here — is just as bonkers as the movie, and involves the crew drinking until they dropped in Thailand, Tom Cruise being barred from the set and Cameron Diaz getting replaced at the 11th hour. It remains my most prized piece of journalism. — Aaron Couch
Resident Evil series (2002-2017)
Rotten Tomatoes average: 28 percent
Box office: $1.2 billion combined
Resident Evil is the pro-female video game turned film franchise that landed way ahead of the apocalyptic craze. The films touch on every possible theme that entices viewers to the doomsday/zombie genre, but it’s still scoffed at. I’ve long suspected it’s because Milla Jovovich, although a former supermodel, never fit into the eye-candy video game babe stereotype. The costumes are practical and slightly androgynous with a nod to iconic style, while her signature look hovers between Helmut Lang’s Berlin club kid meets Burberry’s iconic trench coat. Jovovich’s Alice runs the gamut of trials and tribulations. She copes with amnesia, kills her husband because he gets infected with a mysterious virus, watches longtime friends die, gets cloned, has to fight clones of herself. Each film takes you someplace new with highly stimulating visuals and believable storylines. Her sole mission is to destroy the company that ruined her life. Cue the Umbrella Corp., a pharmaceutical company that later becomes a shadow government. Its mission statement is to control the world by turning humans into zombies, super impractical, but just go with it. Once you think you have figured out Umbrella’s endgame — boom — plot twist. Resident Evil is a story that could never end. It’s some of Mike Epps‘ finest work, too. Binge away! — Sarah Gidick
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001); Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)
Rotten Tomatoes average: 22.5 percent
Box office: $431.2 million combined
Problematic oversexualization of its title character aside, the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider films are a fun romp. If the Rotten Tomatoes scores of the films (20 percent for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and 25 percent for its sequel, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) are any indication, I’m in the minority opinion on this one. I was 9 and 11 when the films came out, hardly ages at which in-depth film critiquing can be expected, which could be coloring my perception a bit. However, at that age, growing up on all of my dad’s favorite male-led action-adventure films (Indiana Jones chief among them), it was the coolest thing to see a woman kick major ass. Lara was smart, strong and beat up the bad guys. So what if the films aren’t Oscar caliber? They left an impression on an impressionable young girl, and to this day, when they’re playing on TV, I find myself getting sucked into the ancient artifacts, myths and lore. Some films are just meant to entertain, and the original onscreen adventures of Lara Croft do just that. — Lauren Huff
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005)
Rotten Tomatoes: 33 percent
Box office: N/A
One caveat here before I go on: Advent Children isn’t a video game adaptation; it’s a movie sequel to a video game. More specifically, it’s a bad movie sequel to the best video game ever, Final Fantasy VII. At the time FFVII was released in September 1997 for the original PlayStation console, games in the genre — referred to as “Japanese role-playing games” or JRPGs, because, well, the name is kind of self-explanatory — hadn’t found much success in the States. FFVII was the exception that became the rule. The game’s rich narrative involving alien parasites, emo supersoldiers, eco-terrorism, and robotic cats set its hooks in millions of U.S. gamers, myself among them.
Though no previous FF game had ever gotten a straight sequel — each installment featured entirely new settings and characters — fans almost immediately began agitating for one, a Final Fantasy VII 2, if you will. But by the early oughts, with Final Fantasies VIII through XI having come and gone — all, again, introducing entirely new casts — hopes for a return to the world of Gaia had begun to wane. So when Advent Children was announced at the 2003 Tokyo Game Show, the response was … mixed. But for me, the film — when it was finally released in English in 2006 after several delays — simply scratched a very persistent itch. I imagine Star Wars fans view the objectively laughable Phantom Menace in the same regard, associating it perhaps with the feeling they had of sitting in a theater in 1999, 16 years after Jedi, and seeing the words “A long time ago …” appear on the screen. I’ll always have a place in my heart for this movie, which continued the stories of the characters I loved, even if I couldn’t control them. Now, about that PS4 remake… — Pete Keeley
What About Zelda?
Mortal Kombat is definitely my favorite guilty pleasure video game movie, but since someone else already snagged that one, I’ll just say that it’s ridiculous that a proper film adaptation of The Legend of Zelda doesn’t exist. Zelda has everything you could want in a movie: an interesting main character with a complicated backstory; a nefarious villain; and a breathtaking, imaginative setting. Breath of the Wild in particular looks so cinematic that sometimes when I’m playing, I take a moment to pan the frame 360 degrees around Link just to appreciate how cool he looks. I’ve clocked more than 200 hours playing BOTW so far, and Lord only knows how much time I spent as a teenager playing Ocarina of Time (the ol‘ N64 didn’t have the technology to log your hours like the fancy Nintendo Switch does). So if The Legend of Zelda video game can captivate an audience for that amount of time, then surely there’s enough substance there to develop and create a film franchise or even a six-episode miniseries that does this title justice, right? Please, Hollywood, make this happen. — Natalie Heltzel
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