(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, February 10, 2005)
I apologize in advance, really I do, but it just begs for the obvious play on words: if you went to see Alone in the Dark, when you got to the theater you were almost certainly alone in the dark yourself. Nobody went to see this thing. Months before the film hit theaters, I already knew poor Christian Slater’s comeback was doomed. After all, this was a) a movie based on a video-game series and b) a Uwe Boll production. The instant Slater signed that contract, he doomed himself to a life spent fighting Patrick Swayze for starring roles in USA Network thrillers and direct-to-DVD turkeys.
Boll, as any gamer geek will be only too happy to inform you, is a stunningly awful director who somehow keeps managing to talk people into giving him millions of dollars so he can make stunningly awful movies based on video games. Beginning with 2003’s House of the Dead (which featured actual video-game footage incorporated into the story), Boll began a reign of terror that won’t end until 2006 at the very earliest: even as studio heads are still rolling over the critical and commercial disaster that was Alone in the Dark, this German auteur is hard at work on the post-production stage of Bloodrayne, in pre-production on Hunter: The Reckoning and already drawing up plans for Far Cry.
It is difficult to overstate just how disliked Boll is by gamers: punch in his name on Google, and you’ll discover a seemingly infinite number of websites suggesting the man should be ground up and fed to hyenas. And that hatred, while admittedly over-the-top and sometimes just plain spooky, is founded on an understandable frustration.
Video games are a massive industry, with players in all age groups. There are articles about video games in glossy magazines. A-list movie stars are now doing voice work for games. Video games are indisputably cool. And yet, within every gamer, there remains that secret fear that we’re really just uncool dorkwads wasting our lives fiddling around with our PlayStations when we could be out getting better jobs or getting laid or something. Being an avid gamer is sort of like being an avid masturbator: it’s all very normal and healthy, and it helps you release stress, and apparently everybody does it . . . yet somehow it still seems kind of anti-social and immature, not something you’d want to talk about with your mom or that cute girl at the office. And doing it too much will give you wrist cramps. Okay, I’ve carried the simile way too far now, but you get my point.
All these awful video-game movies certainly don’t do much for the already-iffy social status or self-esteem of us gamers. Now, when non-gamers (like, say, our moms) think of games, they also think of such big-screen bombs as Super Mario Bros., Wing Commander, Final Fantasy, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, etc. The few video-game movies that have been at all successful—the Mortal Kombat franchise, for instance—are if anything even more embarrassing than the bombs.
Video-game movies often have very little in common story-wise with the games that ostensibly inspired them, and it is tempting to say this is why these movies are such trash. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we must admit most video games are pretty trashy to begin with.
The Tomb Raider games were basically Indiana Jones knock-offs starring a haughty, pistol-packing babe with improbably oversized, gravity-defying hooters, and as such, they would have been right at home as midnight movies on the Sci-Fi Channel. It was their amazing interactivity that made them something special. As Lara Croft, you were set loose in an expansive, 3D environment: you could explore jungle ruins, secret military bases and arctic caves, fighting off wolves, tigers, zombies and dinosaurs. If you were clever, you’d win the treasure, but if you took a wrong step, you could set off some ancient trap and get crushed by those goddamn rolling boulders. It wasn’t high art, but it was the kind of truly immersive fun that Indiana Jones himself, trapped as he is within an immutable, linear narrative, just couldn’t offer. Lara Croft, meanwhile, couldn’t support a movie; the Tomb Raider pictures were quite faithful to the spirit of the games, but her adventures aren’t much fun to watch if you’re not the one pushing the buttons.
For decades, the majority of video games have been Zap! Boom! Pow! stuff pitched at 12-year-old boys of all ages. But in recent years, more adult titles have begun to appear: 2002’s Silent Hill 2 is a game I’ll remember on my deathbed, a horror tale as psychologically traumatic as anything Cronenberg ever directed. The Grand Theft Auto franchise offers a mix of gangsta thrills and scorched-earth social satire more potent than anything Oliver Stone could manage on the best day of his life. These are games that pull you in whether you’re the one pushing the buttons or just watching over a friend’s shoulder.
Inevitably, Silent Hill and Grand Theft Auto movies are now in the works. Both franchises have little to gain and everything to lose by jumping to the big screen, but there’s some reason for hope. The Silent Hill screenplay was penned by Roger Avary, who co-scripted Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino. Avary has pledged to be faithful to the spirit of the games, and if he’s true to his word, he’ll have a classic. And the canny folk at Rockstar, the company behind Grand Theft Auto, are rumored to be bypassing the studios altogether and making the movie version themselves—a far wiser decision than handing their darling over to McG to mangle however he sees fit.
I love a good, linear narrative as much as the next person who earns their living critiquing linear narratives, but even I must admit that compared to the worlds created by the best games, the more conventional storytelling forms of film and TV are looking a little . . . played. I hope there will always be a place for narrative as we’ve known it, but the generations yet unborn may one day look back at the movies we’ve grown up loving and wonder how we used to stand these stories where you had no say in what happened and were stuck looking at whatever some director felt like showing you. Perhaps for them, a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark will be as endearingly quaint as W.K.L. Dickson’s Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze.