Starring Oscar winner Alicia Vikander as the legendary Lara Croft, the film reboot of Tomb Raider was released this week.
Adapted from the 2016 Tomb Raider, itself a reboot of the iconic video game franchise, the film is an origin story which thrusts Lara into unexpected adventure and sees her emerge the fearless, fighty grave robber we know and love.
Aside from the apparent erasure of two influential women of colour that appear in the game, the main problem with Tomb Raider seems to be it’s just not very good. Released to mixed reviews, Tomb Raider follows the now grand tradition of films based on games failing to succeed on the big screen.
It shouldn’t be inevitable, but for some reason every single video game film sucks. Here are the numbers. There have been 44 or so Hollywood films based on games, from 1993’s Super Mario Bros to 2005’s Doom through to 2016’s Assassin’s Creed. The highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which grades the percentage of positive reviews a film receives, is in fact Tomb Raider, which sits at a lofty 49% at the time of writing. The average rating? Around 13%. Not great. Even if you want to measure on a financial scale, the only successful films have been the zombie horror Resident Evil films, which are schlocky and gorey but ultimately pretty standard horror fare.
So why is it that these films unilaterally seem to flop?
While adaptations of books have almost always come from a place of love or draw from acclaimed material, the majority of games picked for adaptation are not chosen for their narrative strength but rather their name recognition. Street Fighter, Hitman, Need for Speed - these games are well-known but none of them contain any trace of thematic resonance or greater meaning, so can we really expect a film to suddenly inject that?
Unlike the games above, Tomb Raider does have not just a story but a dozen or so games’ worth of backstory to draw from. However, as HuffPost’s own Daniel Welsh wrote of Tomb Raider this week: “While a lot of time is spent explaining Lara’s backstory, considerably less is spent establishing her as a character… Lara Croft was actually a tough character to root for, simply because you still knew so little about her as a person by the end of the film.”
But what these films most fail to understand - and I don’t know how to fix this - is that the entertainment value in a game comes from the participatory satisfaction one gets from playing. Watching Lara leap and dive and shoot is infinitely less exciting than playing as Lara and doing the leaping and the diving and the shooting for yourself. Watching a film and picking up a controller are fundamentally different ways of experiencing in stories, and parsing those is a hard thing to get right.
And in any case, do we even want games to need the validation of being adapted into films? If fans want to see video games develop into a universally accepted artistic medium, being an incredible game needs to be enough in its own right. Deep, complex games like Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us, Mass Effect, the BioShock series, or last year’s Horizon Zero Dawn contain incredible and engaging storytelling that stack up against the best film and TV of our time - but that storytelling that is best told through placing you in the game and forcing you to go on that journey and live out the story for yourself. As Guillermo del Toro told IGN back in 2012: “I think that what is great is when a video game is the best video game possible; when you are able to even go beyond any other art form and engage in storytelling through a video game engine.”
So please, all of you, stop making bad, careless, soulless video game films. In fact, let’s maybe just stop making games out of films at all.
Except Detective Pikachu. Who doesn’t want to watch that?