Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph may be an original story, but it also reads as a who’s who of video game history—featuring cameos and call-outs ranging from Q*bert to Kano to Call of Duty. Historically, video-game-themed movies and adaptations are the second-class citizens of cinema, frowned upon by critics and audiences alike. But Wreck-It Ralph worked. Last weekend, it became the biggest opening for Walt Disney Animation ever, topping the box office with $49.1 million.
While the majority of video game adaptations are panned, there are many older properties that have done surprisingly well at the box office. Since its release in September, for example, Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution—the fifth film in the franchise—has made over $160 million in profit. Even before that film was released, the series had grossed over $600 million. The series has cemented the director and his wife, Resident Evil star Milla Jovovich, as international sci-fi superstars. And this all comes from a game that was originally released in 1996.
In the best of terms, these adaptations are welcomed to mixed reviews and multimillion box office receipts. The first film in the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider series, for example, landed at the top of the box office, brought Angelina Jolie to a new level of fame, and grossed over $274 million worldwide. The second film in the series, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, didn’t do as well, but still managed to gross $156 million worldwide.
Both Resident Evil and Tomb Raider managed to separate themselves from their gaming counterparts, becoming their own film franchise while retaining the name recognition of a popular series. In a movie landscape dominated by reboots, sequels, and Hasbro (think: James Bond, Prometheus, Transformers), it would seem that video game adaptations are still an untapped resource for "original" movie content.
Still, not everyone is lucky enough to experience the success of Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil. Likewise, no adaptation so far has found unified critical acclaim. Just last weekend, director Michael J. Basset’s own video game-turned-movie Silent Hill: Revelation, a sequel to Christophe Gans’ 2006 film which grossed almost $100 million worldwide, failed to deliver critically and financially. "As a gamer, rather than a filmmaker, I’m quite disappointed with them," Bassett says of video-game-themed films and adaptations in general. Silent Hill: Revelation made $8 million in its first weekend and quickly dropped to tenth place at the box office this past weekend. "I know there’s debate on whether it’s good or bad, but I hope that it stimulates people and that they’ll get something out of it, no matter what it is," he says of the film.
It’s interesting to wonder whether Wreck-It Ralph marks a turning point in gaming-focused fare. Despite around 100 movie theaters still being closed in the New York and New Jersey area due to Hurricane Sandy when the film debuted, it provided a welcome distraction for people out of school or simply looking for a dose of escapism. The film resonated with modern kids and parents who grew up on the games of the late '80s and early '90s, like Super Mario and Doom.
"The weird thing from a game point of view is that successful games make so much more money than movies ever do," says Bassett. "Turning a game into a movie is a secondary consideration for a lot of these guys because if you make a bad movie out of a good game, it does nothing but damage the game." He’s right. When Call of Duty: Black Ops was released on November 9, 2010, it generated $650 million in sales within the first five days. The Dark Knight Rises, for example, made a little over $447 million during its entire theatrical run.
"As a species, we like to gather around the flickering campfire, television screen, or movie theater screen and sit back and have a story told to us," Bassett says. "To sit back and have a story told to us is part of our heritage, and the notion of interacting with the storytelling is a very new idea." Bassett says that when adapting Silent Hill: Revelation, based on the third game in the series, that was his main dilemma: Adapting an active storytelling experience with a passive story approach.
Still, despite his own movie dropping significantly at the box office, Bassett feels like there is no longer a stigma associated with being a "video game director." "It’s a very generational thing in a way," he says. "An older generation would look down at computer games as silly just the way graphic novels were looked at as silly."
And video-game-based movies will travel the same path to popularity as comics did, according to producer Avi Arad. Comic fans know Arad as the man who helped bring a sweep of superhero movies to the theaters, ranging from X-Men, to Iron Man, to the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2. At the 25th Anniversary event in August for Metal Gear Solid, a popular Konami videogame, Arad told a crowd that he would be turning the espionage-based franchise into a movie. "For many years, I fought to bring comics to theaters, and video games are the comics of today," he said. As such, just as he did with a variety of Marvel properties, he’s adapting some of the biggest names in games like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Mass Effect, inFAMOUS, as well as Pac-Man for television.
"Games are done with an eye to enhance the human experience or somehow reflect the human experience," Bassett says. "That’s what art is supposed to do." These movies may not be art, but considering Wreck-It Ralph's success and Arad’s upcoming slate, it could represent a turning point in making video-game movies viable popcorn fare and perhaps a critical force to be reckoned with for the first time ever.