Detective Pikachu continues a long tradition of batshit crazy movies based on video games. Critic Travis Johnson reflects on the weirdest films this very weird genre has produced – from a head-scratching Mario movie to a harebrained take on Street Fighter.
Movies and video games are very different beasts. However the massive popularity of games means they’ve long been a source of inspiration for the IP-hungry world of franchise filmmaking – and that isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future. After all, Rampage made almost half a billion at the box office, Detective Pikachu is expected to do well for itself, and even the shrill conversation around Sonic the Hedgehog indicates that quite a lot of people are invested, on some level, in the filmic fortunes of Sega’s blue speed freak.
However, what works in a game doesn’t necessarily work on screen. The efforts of filmmakers to cram the expected joys of games – such as iconic characters and locations, subjective control and experiences, and often straight-up nonsensical worldbuilding – into movies has led to some…shall we say…odd cinematic experiences. Games and movies are simply speaking different languages, and sometimes things just get lost in translation. Here are five examples of batshit crazy video game adaptations.
Super Mario Bros. (1993)
Nintendo’s iconic side-scrolling platformer was the first video game movie and has a reputation as one of the worst. Why? Well, for starters, the powers that be decided that the big screen version of crisp and colourful Mario Land would be a dark and dingy apocalyptic alternate universe ruled by humanoid dinosaurs. You half expect plumber heroes Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) to bump into Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard at a noodle bar.
This is largely down to the influence of directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who had worked on the cult cyberpunk series Max Headroom. Thus we get a megalomaniac President (not King!) Koopa (Dennis Hopper) leading an army of Goomba stormtroopers, a design aesthetic best described as “fungus lit with neon.” There are some very weird narrative gyrations in order to include some of the game’s staples, like jumping (achieved through rocket boots, if you must know). It’s all so very weird; picking out a single strange highlight is impossible.
Surprise surprise, audiences stayed away in droves. But Super Mario Bros. has since developed a cult following, because of course it has.
Street Fighter (1994)
You would think that “mixed bag of fighters compete in a kumite fight to the death” would be an easy pitch to get over the line, and you would be wrong. Capcom, creators of the Street Fighter video game franchise, stumped up most of the film’s budget, which meant that they demanded – and got – almost complete creative control.
In practice, this meant that director Steven de Souza was hamstrung, acceding to demands to add more characters from the game to an already unwieldy cast, wrestling with the prodigious ego of star Jean Claude Van Damme (who plays military man Guile) and working around the awful fact that Paul Julia, the actor playing his villain, M. Bison, was dying of cancer and completely incapable of the physical stunts the role required.
The result is a campy hodgepodge of a film that is clearly a compromised effort. At times you can almost literally see the different agendas and aims pulling the story in opposite directions. Still, it is very watchable, as long as you keep the movie’s chequered production history and obvious handicaps in mind.
DOA: Dead Or Alive (2006)
Let’s try this again: you would think that “mixed bag of fighters compete in a kumite fight to the death” would be an easy pitch to get over the line, and you would be right – this time, at least.
If nothing else, the 2006 anomaly DOA: Dead or Alive cleaves to the plotline sketched out by its source game, even if it fails on… well, pretty much every other level. Riffing off of the earlier success of McG’s Charlie’s Angels, DOA also puts a trio of heroic women front and centre. Unfortunately in this case it’s Jaime Pressley, Devon Aoki, and Australia’s own Holly Valance, none of whom have quite the je ne sais quois of Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Lui.
The film also cleaves to the aesthetic of its digital forebear, essentially trucking in hot women, cool fight scenes, exotic locales, and…well, very little else, really. Like Street Fighter, it ends up as an exercise in camp, which has its own charm. If you, like lead villain Eric Roberts, can plug into that – or, like the games’ key demographic, you’re a hormonal teenage boy – you’ll find something to enjoy. Or possibly ogle.
One simply cannot talk about weird video game movies without invoking the name of the unfairly reviled Uwe Boll. The German, er, auteur has made a career out of cheaply snapping up the film rights to video games, cheaply producing them due to a canny understanding of German tax law, and cheaply enraging legions of fanboys attracted to the brand name, who become apoplectic that somehow bloody BloodRayne hasn’t lived up to its obvious inherent cinematic potential.
Honestly, most of Boll’s films are dire. But occasionally (well, maybe twice) he manages to pull together something so singularly strange that it’s worth your fleeting attention. Such is this adaptation of the old fantasy adventure Dungeon Siege. If you can imagine Lord of the Rings but made on a furniture discount warehouse’s advertising budget, you’re in the ballpark.
In the Name of the King isn’t good, per se, but it does boast a never-too-proud-to-work cast of B-movie regulars, including Jason Statham, John Rhys-Davies, Ron Perlman, Kristana Lokken and Matthew Lillard. Also, incredibly, Burt Reynolds and Ray Liotta, who look about as comfortable in the film’s medieval setting as you would expect. There’s also a scene where ninjas fight orcs, so that’s a plus.
Detective Pikachu (2019)
We’ve had a string of Pokémon movies to date, but those have been animated. For its live action (for a certain value of “live”), the venerable critter-collecting franchise has elected to adapt not one of its core games, but a slightly deeper cut: the 2016 adventure game Detective Pikachu.
Thus we get not another fighting tournament movie (and lord, about half of all video game adaptations are fighting tournament movies), but a film noir set in the world of Pokémon, with Justice Smith’s plucky kid Tim Goodman teaming up with his detective dad’s former partner to find out what happened to the old man. The thing is, the “former partner” is Detective Pikachu, and he’s voiced by Ryan Reynolds.
Which you know already, of course. Perhaps that’s the weirdest thing of all: the idea that a video game movie starring bloody Deadpool as a talking lightning rat seems almost normal these days. Perhaps its not that video game adaptations finally started getting it right, but rather reality got so strange that what was once unthinkably bizarre seems almost quaint. Pika pika.