Videogames have had a rough time in cinema. Since videogames are such an interactive medium, a film adaptation always misses out on the intimacy of player involvement or the videogame’s story struggles to find an identity in a new medium. But most of the time, all of these problems are brought on by folks who clearly aren’t aware of the original product and what made it so appealing to fans.
Films like Need for Speed, DOA: Dead or Alive, or Super Mario Bros., have been fine examples of how these films can go wrong, but Dead Rising: Watchtower is a welcome example of a videogame adaptation doing everything right.
A fun, self-aware, bloody brilliant party that is just as goofy as you’d hope.
In Watchtower, the zombie virus has spread round the world and the government has issued a super drug, known as Zombrex, in order to cure it. Digital journalist Chase Carter (Jesse Metcalfe) and his partner Jordan (Keegan Connor Tracy) end up getting caught in the latest outbreak when a bad string of Zombrex infects a stadium full of people. As Chase tries to survive, he runs into a woman who’s already infected named Crystal (Meghan Ory), and now they must work together to survive the zombies, figure out what’s going on with the Zombrex, and most importantly, escape from the group of psychopaths on the loose.
Watchtower had quite a bit of an undertaking on its hands. If you’re not aware of the Dead Rising games, just know they’re famous for featuring a single guy cheesin’ his way through hordes of zombies while he wears crazy outfits, makes anything he can into weapons, and its narrative is one of the worst in zombie fiction. So, having Watchtower not be a complete mess is already a huge plus. It fixes this by creating a narrative all its own rather than try and adapt the current stories available. In fact it relegates Frank West, here in the film awesomely played by Rob Riggle and one of the series’ flamboyantly divisive characters, to the sidelines whereas the film could’ve completely derailed had its tone focused on the wackiness of that character. Instead he’s used wonderfully here. Adding a bit of levity in between heavier scenes and getting the laugh like only Rob Riggle can. A line like “I’ll smack you with that TV” works because the film allows Riggle to be as slimy and goofy as he can while paying homage to videogames themselves.
With zombie cinema as prevalent as it is, it’s hard not to get a sense of “been there, done that” with any zombie film. We’ve seen everything from the grittiest of grit to the hokiest of cheese, so Watchtower tries its best to find a middle ground between the two. There is a sense of loss as the film struggles to find an adequate tone for a good chunk of the film. It might be a result of the film taking the subject matter at face value. Meaning that any goofiness the series is known for is only implied, and scenes only come off as inherently hokey. While this shouldn’t have worked, I really enjoyed the little asides the film gives to its corniness. For example, in an awesome Shaun of the Dead like fashion, one of the first things the characters do when the outbreak breaks is to use whatever they can find as a weapon. Which means at one point, Chase fights a zombie clown holding an axe with a muffler before running it over in such a cool way. It’s a nice bit of staging that you don’t see much in zombie media. It’s always a matter of a survivor fighting with the one weapon they have rather than literally using everything at their disposal.
As for its lead, Jesse Metcalfe holds his own well enough but Chase doesn’t have enough character for Metcalfe to sink his teeth into. It’s just sort of an every man. That’s a consequence of having Frank West be a part of the film too. That character is so magnanimous every time he’s on screen, that every thing else loses spark unwittingly. That’s not to say the film completely lacks personality, however. There’s a scene early on that marries the game’s quirk with the film’s grit and makes for a particularly gripping scene. It’s shot well (as it’s just a constant, smooth take following Chase through a field of zombies), there’s a bit where a weapon wears out and he has to switch, and it was one of the few times there was suspense. Chase just becomes a super zombie killer after that point, and while that’s interesting in its own right, it does lose a little pizzazz. Then again, that’s also a shout out to the game series so kudos to the film.
Dead Rising: Watchtower isn’t perfect as it runs for a bit too long, the psychopaths wear a little thin (as the lead gets a weird speech explaining his motivations), and there’s a jarring first person camera trick used too often early on. But don’t let that deter you away from watching it for yourself. A fantastic videogame adaptation that absolutely nails why the games sell so well, yet never feels alienating for folks who have no idea where this film stems from.
As one of Sony’s Crackle service’s big headlining originals, this is indeed a good show of what’s to come. If they can keep churning out excellent films like this, I’ll definitely stick around to see what’s next.