11 Video Game Movies and Shows That Don’t Totally Suck

11 Video Game Movies and Shows That Don’t Totally Suck
Screenshot: Detective Pikachu/Warner Bros.
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The Tom Holland/Mark Wahlberg adaptation of the Uncharted video game series is out this week, riffing on Indiana Jones with a modern young protagonist. It’s one of my favourite game franchises, which by no means guarantees I’ll enjoy the movie. Movies and shows based on video games have a deservedly spotty reputation; Rotten Tomatoes isn’t everything, but with only a couple of exceptions, their review scores tend to top out somewhere in the 50% range. (Uncharted is currently sitting at a cool 42%.)

Not to be dismissive, but there’s no question that we’re grading on a curve assembling a “best” list of video game movies — we have a tendency to describe particularly well-made video games as “cinematic,” which suggests that the medium’s highest goal should be to evolve itself to become as movie-like as possible. That is silly: they’re very different things, and what works for one often fails the other. As a result, some of the most straightforward game adaptations fail for trying too hard to replicate the source material.

Some of the best are ports of action-heavy fighting games that know exactly what they’re about. An adaptation of Street Fighter probably isn’t going to win a lot of Oscars, but, done right, it might be the perfect diversion. These particular adaptations all work as perfectly watchable entertainment, if for very different reasons.

Werewolves Within (2021)

Based on: Werewolves Within (Red Storm Entertainment)

Though it sank at the box office during its COVID-era limited release, Werewolves Within ranks with the best of game-to-movie films. It’s really the only one that the critics unambiguously like, for one thing. The movie comes from a VR game that is, itself, based on the old Mafia (a.k.a. Werewolf) card game in which players are assigned roles known only to them, and then have to figure out who’s who and make accusations against their opponents. The movie version plays a bit like a slightly bloodier Clue: shortly after the arrival of new forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Veep’s Sam Richardson), a number of bizarre attacks lead the townspeople to conclude a werewolf resides among them, and a lot of finger-pointing (and worse) ensues. Director Josh Ruben, whose earlier film Scare Me was similarly delightful, strikes just the right balance between scares and laughs.

Where to stream: Binge

Mortal Kombat (1995)

Based on: Mortal Kombat (Ed Boon and John Tobias)

Director Paul W.S. Anderson is best known, now, for the seemingly endless Milla Jovovich-lead Resident Evil movie series, which have legit B-movie appeal that in no way captures the horror vibe of the games on which they’re based. He did better with this earlier film, a deeply entertaining bit of fantasy schlock that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be, as evidenced by the presence of the great Christopher Lambert (Highlander), who brought a bit of European gravitas to some of the most enjoyable low-rent films of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Here, he’s flanked by a mixed bag of performances and genuinely imaginative production design, neat world-building, and impressive-for-the-era special effects. And yes, I prefer this one to the 2021 remake.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Castlevania (2017 – 2021)

Based on: Castlevania (Konami)

While a number of these adaptations work within their own lanes, Castlevania is one of the rare takes that’s earned almost universal acclaim — especially impressive given that its source material (specifically, 1990’s platformer Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse) comes from an era well before games were overly interested in developing deeper storylines. The show goes all-in on its vampiric folklore, and utilises an A-list voice cast to the fullest. If nothing else, the gorgeous and expensive-looking animation is worth a look. In the summer of 2021, Netflix announced a French Revolution-set spin-off, but some legal wrangling seems to have delayed production for now.

Where to stream: Netflix

Silent Hill (2006)

Based on: Silent Hill (Konami)

Silent Hill stands as one of the more faithful adaptations of a video game, though that doesn’t make a great case for faithfulness, generally. The dreamlike weirdness and almost deliberately stilted dialogue that serve the (very scary) game series are more distancing here (the frights are more effective when you’re in control). Still, the atmosphere, lifted right from the game, is impressive, with a pervasive giallo feel. As a narrative, it falls flat, but as a two-hour fever dream, it has a unique appeal.

Where to stream: Binge

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Based on: Detective Pikachu (The Pokémon Company, Creatures, Inc.)

I’m not really sure who the target audience for Detective Pikachu was meant to be. There are a lot of Pokémon fans, no question, but enough to support an expensive adaptation of a very specific 2016 DS game? Apparently so, with Ryan Reynolds’ lead voice performance serving as either a vote of confidence in the material from the distributors, or an added inducement to get people into theatres. It worked, regardless, doing enough business to warrant talk of a possible sequel (though it’s probably not happening). In the impressively designed Ryme City, a place where humans and Pokémon interact freely (shades of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) teams up with Pikachu in order to solve his father’s murder. It’s so weird that it kinda works.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005)

Based on: Final Fantasy VII (Square Enix)

Advent Children received mixed reviews on its initial release, in large part because of its near-complete incomprehensibility to anyone not familiar with the game on which it’s based. That seemed like a bigger deal in 2005 than it does now, when we’re used to following franchises across media (you may recall how Star Wars revived the Emperor for Rise of Skywalker not in a movie, but in Fortnite). So where Advent Children succeeds is as a relatively early version of that type of cross-media fan-service. It’s wonderfully stylish, and a more recent Complete version of the film smoothes out some of the more confusing bits. It’s still a bit opaque, but the action sequences are exciting enough to paper over the trickier plot points.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Based on: Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega)

Better than a movie about very fast hedgehog has any right to be, the family-friendly Sonic did impressive business at the box office (garnering the biggest opening weekend for any video game-based movie), even as its international take was truncated by COVID. The movie offers a bit of nostalgia for old-timey Sonic fans, but mostly just has a lot of clever fun with its entirely goofy premise. The cast, including an appropriately high-energy Jim Carrey, all seem to be having a ton of fun, which goes a long way toward selling it. The sequel rated an ad during this year’s Super Bowl and attracted Idris Elba to voice red-furred antagonist Knuckles, so there’s more where this came from.

Where to stream: Netflix

Carmen Sandiego (2019 – 2021)

Based on: Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (Broderbund)

One of the most prolific franchises of the modern era, criminal mastermind Carmen San Diego has produced multiple TV series and something like two dozen games since the original, which dropped way back in 1985. This semi-prequel reimagines the character as more of a Robin Hood figure than a straight-up villain, turning her into an unexpected role model for her intelligence and willingness to stand up to authority when she feels its right. The show also emphasises the cultural and geographical knowledge that was the whole point of the games: Carmen wields the information at her fingertips in a way that makes clear knowledge is better than any weapon.

Where to stream: Netflix

Rampage (2018)

Based on: Rampage (Midway Games)

There’s absolutely something to be said for a movie that knows its audience. The game series involves monsters mutated into kaiju through the machinations of the evil Scumlabs — monsters that you, the player, use to smash things and defend yourself against military attackers. Not a whole lot there to hang a movie on, and that’s fine. Dwayne Johnson is absolutely doing his thing as a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and primatologist who gets caught up with an unnaturally large albino gorilla named George as they fight the other giant animals and try to stop villains from destroying Chicago. Another one in which you get exactly what you paid for.

Where to stream: Binge

Arcane (2021 – )

Based on: League of Legends (Riot Games)

Perhaps even more so than with its hit Castlevania, with Arcane Netflix and co. invested in the idea that a series based on a video game could benefit from high-end animation and an A-list voice cast (which here includes Hailee Steinfeld, Kevin Alejandro, and Shohreh Aghdashloo, among others). The steampunk fantasy world of the setting doesn’t require any knowledge whatsoever of League of Legends, the game it is ostensibly drawn from. instead using it as a backdrop for a perfectly compelling story of two sisters on the opposite sides of a looming war.

Where to stream: Netflix

Mortal Kombat (2021)

Based on: Mortal Kombat (Ed Boon and John Tobias)

OK, fine. It doesn’t hit the heights of the 1995 adaptation and it loses most of its steam in the third act, but the most recent Mortal Kombat movie has pleasures of its own, mostly in the glee it displays in bringing a series-appropriate level of violence and blood to the proceedings — geysers of it, in fact. If the movie had taken itself a bit less seriously, it might have wound up as a hyperkinetic camp classic. Instead, we’ll have to settle for a perfectly diverting, quarantine-friendly bit of action entertainment.

Where to stream: Binge

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