Could 'Mass Effect' be the first worthwhile videogame adaptation?
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Does Bioware deserve the same respect and effort that Hollywood gives Tolkien and J.K. Rowling...?
Do you remember the Super Mario Bros movie? Either you’ve erased it from your memory, or failing that, it’s ingrained itself onto your brain forever, like some virtual cattle-brand. It was the stuff of nightmares, a true example of Hollywood at its appallingly naïve worst. They took a game based on a fundamentally light-hearted adventure in which two whacky Italian brothers side-scroll across the screen, jumping on Goombas and eating colourful mushrooms (which explains a great deal)...and turned it into a dystopian B-movie. It had zero resemblance to the game except for the slapped-on character names.
As bad as the movie is, the worst part is that anyone, anywhere could even begin to think that this was a good idea. This was clearly a desperate Hollywood looking to make a quick buck by cashing in on a brand name that had, at that time, made waves in a small but growing industry. Since then, the video game industry has changed drastically; Wii games are now widely regarded as the done thing at Christmas; even grandmas play the DS, and slowly but surely, games are being recognized as 'art'.
Yet for the changes within the industry itself, Hollywood’s take hasn’t changed a bit. If you take a look at the track record of game-to-movie adaptations across the years, it’s plain to see that the standard has not been raised one bit. Movies like Street Fighter, House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Hitman and Max Payne have all been made, and all of them have some of the lowest Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores known to man.
Granted, some games just shouldn’t be made into movies. How anyone ever thought Street Fighter would make a good transition to the cinema is beyond me, but that’s not to say this is a universal rule. Max Payne, for example, had a deeply noir feel to its storyline, told through dark and compelling narration that was considered to be quite unique at the time, but its theatrical release (not to mention Mark Wahlberg playing the title role) bombed miserably and sank without a trace among the critics too.
Why the consistent failure? As it stands now, we’re at a time when games have never been more advanced, and, generally speaking, when story is no longer regarded as a bonus but as a necessity, and many of the storylines in modern games are not just good but great. Why do things continuously go sideways, then? The perhaps stereotypical but nonetheless true answer is that studio executives just don’t have a clue. That sounds very dismissive, and as someone who would usually try to argue both sides of the coin, it’s not something I say lightly; but with videogames, the evidence seems to be undeniable.
In almost every case the storylines from the games are altered, extra characters are introduced while others are cut, and the result can often mean that, had you not been told it was based on the video game, you wouldn’t even realize the connection. Execs aren’t the only ones to blame, though: there are directors who willingly butcher the foundations of the franchise they’re exploiting, scraping a few cursory names here and there in order to keep the brand relatively intact.
"It’s the arrogance of studio execs and directors, apparently convinced that they 'know better', that has put videogame adaptations in the crammer for so long."
No example is more indicative of this mind-set than Resident Evil. It’s a tragedy that such a poorly-adapted movie has managed to generate four incarnations, each one worse than the last; and yet this is our pitiful jewel in the crown of the videogames-to-movies adaptations. Paul W.S. Anderson scrapped all the original characters for the first movie, instead giving us Milla Jovovich as Alice, a completely new character. With any adaptation, it’s understandable that changes have to be made, but really – why did we need Alice? In the later movies, franchise characters like Claire and Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine and Carlos Olivera entered the fray, but even they bear little to no resemblance to their game counterparts. Many may express surprise at the notion that the Resident Evil games actually have a plot, but they do, and quite a deep mythology to boot.
It’s the arrogance of studio execs and directors, apparently convinced that they 'know better', that has put videogame adaptations in the crammer for so long. This year’s Prince of Persia made a small step towards progression, but only bearing in mind that this was largely because of Jerry Bruckheimer's almost-inexhaustible financial support. Getting just 37% on Rotten Tomatoes, it is nonetheless still the highest ranking videogame-to-movie adaptation to date. Which is pretty goddamned depressing.
Yet, there is hope.
Game blockbusters Bioshock, Mass Effect and Uncharted are all set for adaptations and each has the potential to break this seemingly never-ending cycle of cheap production value, terrible casting and simplified story. As a fan of Uncharted, a part of me has died on the inside knowing that Mark Wahlberg has been (mis)cast as Nathan Drake, wise-cracking hero and ladies man. For myself and millions of fans, Nathan Fillion was the only choice for this role – Fillion even launched his own campaign for the role via Twitter, but once again the Hollywood Powers That Be have decided to shit on their own doorstep.
"Uncharted has the potential to be the next Indiana Jones…or perhaps I should say had..."
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t inherently dislike Mark Wahlberg. He’s not a great actor by any means, though he does occasionally shine – but always in supporting roles. He is not a leading man and he absolutely lacks the charisma necessary for Nate’s character to work and bring in a big screen audience. Other rumours are circulating that Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are also attached to star, reportedly as Nate’s father and uncle – neither of whom feature in the videogames. The story is also reportedly set in New York, a location that has never once featured in either of the Uncharted games.
It’s almost enough to make you pound your forehead into your keyboard at the sheer WHY!? of it all. The first Uncharted game has a great self-contained story set on a mystical island where the eminent explorer Sir Francis Drake supposedly hid his treasure. Nate (Drake’s apparent descendant), along with hilarious mentor-cum-father-figure Sully and journalist Elena go in search of the treasure and find there’s a great deal more to the legend than they thought. Anyone who’s played the game could tell you how much of a cinematic experience it is and how well it would fit into the world of film. The dialogue is snappy, original, and more like watching something written by Aaron Sorkin than a standard videogame. No kidding, Uncharted has the potential to be the next Indiana Jones…or perhaps I should say had. Sigh.
Meanwhile Gore Verbinski of Pirates of the Caribbean fame was trying to get the much-delayed Bioshock movie off the ground, but the project stumbled into that black hole that is Development Hell. Frustrated at the lack of progress, Verbinski reassigned himself to producing duties with Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) now set to take the director’s mantle.
As a movie, Bioshock certainly presents some challenges; silent protagonist, huge underwater city, gruesome violence and anti-capitalist sentiments running amok; on paper, it certainly isn’t the easiest of sells. Yet if done right, Bioshock could be a massive hit. Granted, the protagonist Jack would have to speak – no audience could attach themselves to a silent lead, and the budget would in all likelihood have to be huge to create the environments accurately enough and capture the incredible atmosphere that is unique to the underwater city of Rapture, but it could be done. With a bit of green-screen, some careful casting choices (the campaign for Daniel Day-Lewis as megalomaniac Andrew Ryan starts here), Bioshock could be the movie that breaks the cycle.
However, neither Uncharted nor Bioshock have the absolute gargantuan potential to make it that Mass Effect does. Set in the second half of the 23rd century, Mass Effect has a universe that is bursting at the seams with detail. The story follows Commander Shepard, a soldier in the Alliance Navy, humanity’s answer to a space fleet. When Shepard is sent on a mission to colonized planet Eden Prime, he comes into contact with a mysterious device created by the Protheans, an ancient species that pre-dates all others, and whose technology humanity now relies upon to travel through space.
When he comes into contact with said beacon, Shepard has a vision of an impending apocalypse, a mass genocide that would wipe out not just humanity but all the races across the galaxy. Upon completion of his mission, Shepard realizes that Saren, an agent of the Spectres (the galaxy’s peacekeepers) is working with the Reapers, a giant mechanical race shrouded in just as much - if not more - mystery than the Protheans, to destroy all forms of organic life. When Shepard brings evidence that indicts Saren to the Galactic Council and head of the Spectres, they revoke Saren’s license to kill and anoint Shepard as the first human Spectre. From there, Shepard travels the galaxy to pursue and stop Saren from succeeding in bringing all organic life to complete destruction.
On paper, it’s a very video-gamey synopsis, but there is so much in Mass Effect that makes you see the potential for a movie adaptation. Characters and dialogue are excellently written, by turns hilarious, moving and in some cases exuding pure 'cool'. If given the budget it needs, Mass Effect has the potential to be the next Star Wars. That might be considered a bold statement, but it’s an assertion that I and many others would stand by wholeheartedly.
Although set two hundred years in the future, Mass Effect has a plausibility about it that manages to reflect the conflicts and struggles of our own world, and while it may feature alien species, the humanity of the characters is plain to see. Throughout the course of the story, Shepard often has to make impossible decisions, including which members of his team will be sacrificed for the greater good. A game it may be, but the drama and gravitas of all these decisions is weighted and felt in each moment, and their repercussions echo for the entire story. Mass Effect is one of those rare and brilliant games that pulls you into that world strongly enough that you genuinely end up caring about the characters in that universe, and it's one transition that would easily lend itself to film.
"With Hollywood apparently envisaging Mass Effect as a movie trilogy, this change to telling a story that pre-dates the first game’s storyline is completely nonsensical"
However, judging from the synopsis currently on IMDB, the story looks set to take place during the First Contact War – events that transpire prior to those of the game itself. Fans of the series will know that this is an integral part of Mass Effect mythology, but once again, this has me pounding my head into my desk. Mythologically significant or not, The First Contact War has no direct connection to the events of the game. Once again, Hollywood seems to think it knows better. With a trilogy outline so clearly established in the first game, and with Hollywood apparently envisaging Mass Effect as a movie trilogy, this change to telling a story that pre-dates the first game’s storyline is completely nonsensical.
Of course, like anything in the stages of conception, everything is execution-dependent. The best idea in the world still needs a true visionary to transfigure the scripted page effectively to the screen. There are a number of directors that one might consider: J.J. Abrams, David Fincher, Duncan Jones, James Cameron, Joseph Kosinski, Christopher Nolan...even Zack Snyder. Any of these could do justice to the proposed trilogy, but for various reasons or other, some of them would almost certainly be ruled out. J.J. Abrams redefined Star Trek for another generation, and I have no doubt as to his ability to do the same for Mass Effect, but it seems unlikely that man would invest himself in his competitor’s product. James Cameron, similarly, has created a sci-fi universe all his own with Avatar, and judging from his methods, it seems unlikely he would be happy to work with someone else’s material without altering the source. Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are both huge names, and while Hollywood would be unlikely to attach them to a videogame movie, both of them could change everything forever if they did. Of the lot, Duncan Jones (Moon) and Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy and forthcoming The Black Hole) seem the most likely. Kosinski might seem like a left-field choice with just two movies under his belt, but my immediate impression after watching the trailer for TRON: Legacy was “That guy would be great for Mass Effect”.
"Matthew Fox might not be a mega-star, but you’ll find few people in Hollywood who actually have more of a resemblance to Commander Shepard, and having watched all six seasons of Lost, I believe in Fox enough to say that he could pull it off"
As for the casting, rumors are circulating that Matthew Fox is attached to the movie already for the role of Shepard. While it’s a little ironic that Fox just traded in one Shepherd (Jack, from Lost) for another, it is hard to argue with this casting. Matthew Fox might not be a mega-star, but you’ll find few people in Hollywood who actually have more of a resemblance to Commander Shepard, and having watched all six seasons of Lost, I believe in Fox enough to say that he could pull it off.
While Commander Shepard is undoubtedly the most integral role, he has a varied and interesting posse that accompanies him. This list is written based on the assumption that the studio will use live-action actors rather than CGI for the non-human species – should they decide to go with CGI, then I firmly advocate sticking to the video-game voice actors, however unlikely that is. Nonetheless, this is an article written with the firm intention of breaking the cycle rather than allowing it to perpetuate itself; and with this in mind, here is the cast of Mass Effect as it should be:
Matthew Fox as Commander Shepard
Zachary Levi as Kaiden Alenko
Ron Perlman as Urdnot Wrex
Emily Blunt as Ashley Williams
Mark Strong as Garrus Vakarian
Ellen Page as Tali Zorah nar Rayya
Liv Tyler as Liara T’Soni
Cate Blanchett as Matriarch Benezia
Hugo Weaving as Saren Artemis
Helen Mirren as Doctor Chakwas
Seth Green as Joker
Keith David as Captain Anderson
Pete Postlethwaite as Ambassador Udina
Paul Bettany as Thane Krios
David Hyde Pierce as Mordin Solus
Yvonne Strahovski as Miranda Lawson
Harold Perinneau as Jacob Taylor
Noomi Rapace as Jack
Michael Clarke Duncan as Grunt
Tilda Swinton as Samara
Jason Isaacs as Zaeed Massani
Jennifer Garner as Kasumi Goto
Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man
"If Hollywood dared to show videogames the same respect they now reserve for comic book adaptations, there’s no telling the quality of films they could produce, nor the untold millions they could generate"
Some of these were ridiculously hard to cast and several times I deliberated and changed my mind (particularly with Garrus; I considered Kevin Spacey, Kiefer Sutherland, Joshua Jackson, Michael Fassbender and many more) but as far as I’m concerned, some are absolute musts (Kaiden, Miranda, Joker, Zaeed, Jack, Tali).
In an age where original ideas are in consistent decline, remakes and reboots of franchises not even ten years old are common, it’s high time Hollywood stood up and recognized that videogames aren’t a passing fad: the market is growing, there are more gamers than ever before; this is an industry that has weathered the storm and is here to stay. Hollywood should perhaps remember that only a decade ago comic book movies represented a subgenre (excluding Superman and Batman) in its infancy, with generally shoddy production values in films perceived as derivative of juvenile source material read by geeks and social-inepts. Then, X-Men and Spider-Man came along and changed everything. Now, they’re the biggest source of income for the industry, and The Dark Knight is currently the third-highest grossing movie of all time, topped only by Avatar and Titanic. If Hollywood dared to show videogames the same respect they now reserve for comic book adaptations, there’s no telling the quality of films they could produce, nor the untold millions they could generate.
It’s time to give games a chance.
By the same author:
The quandaries and possibilities of Mass Effect 3
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