It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that video game movies are popular nowadays. With the industry becoming the highest-grossing entertainment media in the past couple of years, Hollywood would obviously want to cash in on that popularity. It also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that, like a lot of cynical attempts to make money, most of these movies are awful. In fact, a lot of video game movies are awful. Like… my God, there are so many of them.
Now, it should also come as no surprise that a lot of folks here at Flixist also fancy ourselves as gamers. We’re nerds over in here more ways than one. Some of us are members of the PC master race, some of us are Sony diehards, and I’m a Nintendo fanboy. We all have our niches, and if we’re not talking about movies, we’re most likely talking about games.
So with a huge glut of video game movies in the works, many of which have been in production for what seems like an eternity (cough Uncharted cough), and with the recent release of Mortal Kombat, it’s about time we give you a definitive list of which are the best video game movies to watch and which are the ones that you should avoid like the plague.
Now, for complete transparency’s sake, trying to watch every single video game movie adaptation is a fool’s task. There are just too many and several of them are derivative of each other, so trying to separate one from the other in any meaningful way is an exercise in futility. Also trying to watch the dozens upon dozens of bad to mediocre movies is some kind of torture, so we’re going to do things a little bit differently here. Instead, we’re going to rank these movies into different groups. Each group will have a similar theme and tone to them and this will serve as more of a guide to watching video game movies, though we will talk about which ones are the best. So consider this a beginner’s guide to watching video game movie adaptations and where you should start and what you should 1000% avoid.
The rules of this list are simple; if it’s based on a video game, no matter how big or how small, and it got a THEATRICAL release, it’s fair game. I’m not counting the direct-to-DVD crowd because I’m pretty sure that Pokemon alone would spell my doom. I know some movies got limited theatrical events and I’ll try my best to include those whenever possible, but this is mostly going to be talking about the big movies, not the super-niche one-night event movies. Also, television shows do not count because those are their own separate beasts, but if you really want a recommendation for a video game television adaptation, Netflix’s Castlevania is pretty neat. So with that being said, here is your guide to video game movie adaptations snd which ones you should watch versus avoid at all costs, starting with…
The Uwe Boll Ones
Movies – House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Bloodrayne, Postal, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Seige Tale, Far Cry
For those of you who don’t know who Uwe Boll is, be grateful. Uwe Boll is a horrible director who made a living in the 2000s directing awful video game movie adaptations that rank as some of the worst movies of all time. You can actually make a very valid claim he is the worst director of all time. More than Ed Wood.
The man is a blazing jerk who famously would challenge critics to boxing matches and flaunted how he would exploit German tax laws to finance his movies. He’s awful and all of his films are frankly unwatchable. They’re bad in a way where you can’t even find them enjoyable. They’re just bad. His reputation is infamous and you can derive no enjoyment from any of his critical and commercial failures. He said he retired, so good riddance.
The Paul W.S. Anderson Ones
Movies – Resident Evil, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Resident Evil: Extinction, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Resident Evil: Retribution, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Monster Hunter
With one very notable exception, which we will get to, pretty much all of Paul W.S. Anderson’s video game movie adaptations have been awful. In case you want a more detailed look at all of his Resident Evil movies and why they’re so bad, take a look at my ranking of the series that I did last year. It was the most unpleasant experience I’ve done in the three years I’ve been writing for Flixist and it probably will still be one of the most personally painful pieces I will ever publish here. All of the films, including last year’s Monster Hunter, follow the same rules; have non-stop and nonsensical action, have enough video game references to drawn fans in but don’t do anything with them, and show off how hot his wife, Milla Jovovich, is. Rinse and repeat.
The Bad Ones
Movies – Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Doom, Hitman, Max Payne, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, Silent Hill: Revelation, Hitman: Agent 47
First of all, can I just say we’re nearly two dozen films in and we haven’t even escaped the bad category? God help us all…
Anyway, here we have the video game movie adaptations that are just plain bad. They usually take elements from the video games they based themselves off of yet butcher the property beyond recognition. John went into a pretty lengthy look at just how Mortal Kombat: Annihilation sucked as much as it did, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Look, video games, for the most part, are very goofy and/or silly. As much as people like to cite serious stories made by serious developers about serious characters like The Last of Us, the vast majority of games are fun because they’re so ridiculous. I love to play Final Fantasy because I want to cast magic spells and ride giant chickens. I get a kick out of Doom because who doesn’t want to play a nameless guy RIPPING AND TEARING through demons on Mars. I enjoy Devil May Cry because I want to ride a missile into Cerberus’ face while butt-rock is playing. That’s fun!
These movies rob the source material of all of their enjoyment. They focus on trying to be what fans perceive the series should be but miss nearly every single major point. The worst offender in this section, in my humble opinion, is Silent Hill: Revelation, a shameless rip-off of a well-beloved game that turns a unique and memorable horror franchise into B-movie shlock. But if you separate these movies from their games, the sad truth is they’re still bottom-of-the-barrel, unimpressive films. There’s no other way to look at them besides as bad movies that very few people would ever defend. You may have some more defenders than with Uwe Boll films, but not many.
The “Wait, Those Existed?” Ones
Movies – Double Dragon, Wing Commander, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Need For Speed, Ratchet & Clank, Assassin’s Creed, Rampage
What’s that? You forgot that these were actual movies that released? Well don’t worry: so did the rest of the world.
The majority of the films in this section aren’t bad, though one can argue that a few of these films might be placed in the previous category, the main crux here is that not many people actually remember that these films even existed. Did you know that there was a Wing Commander movie? Hell, does anyone know that Wing Commander was a video game series and a pretty neat one at that? Despite some of these movies being fairly recent, like the Rampage movie coming out only a few years ago, no one ever talks about them.
Film is already a fairly disposable medium of entertainment where everyone is always looking for the next major movie to watch, but even back then these movies never really got any major traction. They were announced, they released without much fanfare, then they went away. They were purely disposable, meant to pad out a budget report more than make any real artistic statement. Destined for bargain bins, but can have some enjoyment out of them if you’re a fan of the franchise. Otherwise, probably not worth tracking down. (Ed. note: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is definitely worth tracking down.)
Super Mario Bros.
No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t classify Super Mario Bros. into any category neatly. As the first major Hollywood adaptation of a video game property, it’s fascinating just hearing about the production of this movie and how the final product is virtually unrecognizable from Nintendo’s de facto mascot. But does that make this movie bad? It’s honestly hard to say.
An adaptation is not beholden to the original source material. As much as fans may hate the fact that a movie or TV may take creative liberties in adapting a book or game, ultimately the original product still remains. Being a faithful adaptation may mean a lot to fans of the series, but what does any of that matter to an outsider who is exposed to the series for the first time? If you were to ask me, I’m all for experimentation and taking risks as long as the risks create a new experience that feels worthy of the series. Watchmen will always be my go-to example when it comes to an adaptation that honors the original story, yet goes in its own direction to make a unique and still memorable experience.
Now take all of that, douse it in bleach, then set it on fire because Super Mario Bros. is just pure madness. Nearly everything about the movie feels like the results of watching Hollywood executives take all of the coke in LA and have a marathon session of the NES Super Mario Bros. games. Or rather, let the two who came up with Max Headroom act like dictators and tank the project out of egotism.
The movie goes off the rails from the very first minute and Does. Not. Let. Up. When I first watched it I hated every second of the movie, but the more I get older the more I can’t decide whether it’s a brilliant disaster or just a straight-up disaster. This is the kind of movie that you can come back to every few months with a wildly different outlook on it and, to its credit, no other video game movie adaptations ever did what it did. It was bold and left an impact, for better or worse. You can show it to 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different responses. But since most of them would probably end up on the negative side of things, here’s where it shall go. But definitely go ahead and watch it, if only for Dennis Hopper’s surreal performance as a business mogul version of Bowser.
Warcraft is another film that’s really hard to classify. Unlike with the Super Mario Bros movie, I have very little experience with the Warcraft franchise. I don’t know the major relationship between the different factions or even who major characters in the games are outside of cultural osmosis. I can only approach this movie as an outsider and from that perspective, it’s… fine?
The movie definitely has its audience but the film just reeks of missing the forest for the trees. Numerous major events happen in Blizzard’s fantasy series, but this comes across as almost too simple for fans and newcomers, with the filmmakers hesitant to go all-in on the hardcore fantasy elements, afraid they’ll scare off the casual filmgoer. Technically they did in North America as the movie bombed quite spectacularly, but in China, the movie was able to become a pretty big hit. So I don’t know, maybe it’s actually a pretty faithful adaptation, but it hardly manages to muster anything more than a shrug from most of the people I’ve conversed with on this. But even at its worst, it’s doesn’t reach the lows that Super Mario Bros. does, so it just barely gets placed above it.
The Animated Ones
Movies – Pokemon: The First Movie, Pokemon 2000, The Angry Birds Movie, The Angry Birds Movie 2
For as much as I love to talk about animated movies on here and preach the idea that animated movies aren’t JUST for kids, I admit I’m on my backfoot with these four films. It’s fair to say now that we’ve officially reached the mid-tier movies of the list, featuring films that are perfectly fine on their own without too many major flaws. That being said, the movies here give off the impression they’re here to sell a product and advertise their game to kids much more than tell a good story or impart anything meaningful other than “BUY OUR TOYS.” Yeah, I know that all of these movies are basically advertisements for their respective games, but they’re not as blatant as these are.
As a child of the 90s, I know I will be crucified for saying this, but the first two Pokemon movies were made purely to capitalize on the Pokemania craze. Nearly every film after this would be a direct-to-DVD release without much fanfare, but these films got major theatrical runs that kids flocked to. They’re by no means high art, or even all that great at the end of the day, but they were entertaining and still are.
The same can be said for the Angry Birds movies, which I will give credit to the filmmakers for creating a believable story around a fairly one-dimensional mobile phone game and added enough jokes to keep kids entertained. I mean, they’re not good jokes and they’re absolutely grating to any adults in the audience, but kids will find it amusing, so having that perspective is pretty important. So no, while I may not personally find these movies all that great nowadays, I can admit I’m not the target audience for them, and that’s okay. They’re still entertaining to some people, even if those people don’t have a huge library of movies to work off of.
The Tomb Raider Ones
Movies – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Lara Croft Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, Tomb Raider
The Tomb Raider series has arguably been the most reliable video game franchise to rely on for box office success. In fact, the Tomb Raider series is probably the one series that best fits the mold as a Hollywood blockbuster. Take a popular actress, Angelina Jolie in the 2000s and Alicia Vikander in the 2010s, and put them in a globe-trotting adventure with large action setpieces. Sure, it’s nothing original and it’s repeating a lot of the same tropes that you would expect from any other generic adventure like this, but it does it competently, at least entertaining general audiences.
But the reason why these movies rank just above the pack, yet still land squarely in the mid-tier range, has everything to do with the actresses who play each character. Both Angelina Jolie and Alicia Vikander embody Lara Croft and deliver solid performances as one of gaming’s biggest icons. Jolie plays that larger-than-life, self-confident, and badass original version of the character, while Vikander’s rough-around-the-edges take on her is also respectable (Ed. note: Vikander is an absolute badass and this movie rocks.) The movies are generic overall, but a good lead actress can do a lot to elevate what would otherwise be a generic Hollywood action film.
The Fighting Game Ones
Movies – DOA: Dead or Alive, Tekken, Mortal Kombat (2021)
If there is one genre of video game that seems tailor-made for movies, it would be fighting games. They’re perfectly designed for movies and don’t require anything extraordinary to work. Like their video game counterparts, the basic concept for why certain characters are fighting each other comes across like an afterthought. It doesn’t really matter why there are ninjas, martial artists, or businessmen fighting each other. All that matters is that audiences get to watch some well-shot and choreographed fight scenes and that’s a wrap. We want to watch people fight, so here are some people fighting. What more can you ask for?
Fighting games themselves rarely go above and beyond with their stories since the premise is usually enough. The same goes for Hollywood. These movies know exactly what they are. They’re shallow excuses to watch some well-done fight scenes with a whole heaping ton of melodrama drenched over everything else. Sometimes they’re super serious, like the recent Mortal Kombat movie, which does admittingly dampen the fun just a bit, while other times you get shameless spectacles like DOA: Dead or Alive, which is mindless action that knows just how stupid it is. These are pure, idiotically fun films and as long as you can turn your brain off, you should have a pretty good experience by the time the credits roll.
The Good Ones
Movies – Street Fighter, Pokemon 3: The Movie, Silent Hill, Detective Pikachu
And now we’ve reached the good movies! Hooray! While the past couple of blocks have had huge qualifiers over them, I can safely recommend each of these movies to fans of their respective video game counterparts as well as newcomers. They may have some flaws here or there as far as living up to their source material, but they’re still good rides that left me feeling satisfied.
All four of these recommendations are all wildly different, so let’s just break them down into a brief sentence or two why you should see each movie, starting with the glorious Street Fighter! Featuring the final performance by the legendary Raul Julia, Street Fighter just embodies all of the dumb, cheesy action trends of the early 90s with a coked-out Jean-Claude Van Damme starring a lively cast of actors. With some excellent one-liners and quotes, it somehow still stands the test of time as a perfect guilty pleasure. In the polar opposite direction, Silent Hill is anything but funny and light-hearted, but it manages to capture the unique and unsettling aura of Silent Hill thanks to the bleak visuals and excellent score. It goes a little wild at the end, but it’s pretty remarkable that it did as well as it did both commercially and critically.
It’s also kind of insane that Pokemon 3: The Movie pulled some themes and ideas that feel oddly reminiscent of a Silent Hill game. Yes, it’s still a Pokemon movie and features cute monsters fighting it out, but it also has a little girl coping with her parents abandoning her by giving in to the mental delusions of Pokemon in order to fabricate a reality to escape from her real-world problems. Yeah, this movie gets really dark at times but it’s kind of remarkable that Nintendo actually took a creative risk with this movie. The same can be said with Detective Pikachu, which features some impressive CG imagined Pokemon with a plot that knows when to play things seriously and when to lighten things up. Casting Ryan Reynolds wasn’t a bad idea either.
So yeah, if any of those movies sound interesting, take a look at them since they’re all pretty good video game movie adaptations in their own unique ways.
The Great Ones
Movies – Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog
If you were to tell me that I would be calling Sonic the Hedgehog one of the best video game movie adaptations, I’d have thought you were crazy, especially given the apocalyptic first look back in 2019. Yet director Jeff Fowler and his team were able to hunker down and turn what was, and still kind of is, a punching bag of an icon into an exciting and fun family film. The characters are well defined, most, if not all, of the jokes land, and the movie is supported by a classic return to form from Jim Carrey and a great performance by Ben Schwartz as Sonic. I’m kind of shocked that I had as much fun as I did and with a sequel on the horizon, I am legitimately curious to see how it will do.
But at the end of the day, there’s one video game movie adaptation that stands above the rest and it was one of the first. Mortal Kombat is a masterpiece of action shlock that, like Street Fighter before it, captured all of the magic of 90s action movies in one package. While both movies have their charms, Mortal Kombat is made all the better by good fight scenes, bizarre yet charming performances, and the best theme song to any movie, genre be damned. There’s just no getting over the fact that if you were to ask me if there are any good video game adaptations, Mortal Kombat would be the first movie I would throw at you. I have no idea what happened to Paul W.S. Anderson after he made this movie, but at least we got one excellent video game adaptation out of him.