Donald Clarke: Video games spawned two film genres. Only one of them is awful

The other, which includes new release Free Guy, helps explain how we became what we are

Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy

Here’s a weird cultural contradiction that has not been satisfactorily examined. It hardly needs to be said that almost all cinematic adaptations of video games are terrible. Of 45 such projects, Rotten Tomatoes, cinema’s busiest review aggregator site, rates just three as receiving largely positive reviews (“fresh” in the site’s lexicon).

With all respect to colleagues in the critical fraternity, my one viewing each of The Angry Birds Movie 2, Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog will suffice. That’s an astonishingly poor hit rate. Only 6.7 per cent of films in this genre are worth crossing the street to see. Few are substantial smashes either. For every Tomb Raider or Resident Evil, there are half a dozen Warcrafts or Assassin’s Creeds.

You knew that. Here is the interesting bit. Films that deconstruct imagined video game universes are significantly more popular with critics and discerning audiences than adaptations. And there are dozens of them. As long ago as 1982, Disney sent Jeff Bridges into the shiny mayhem of Tron. The film was not an unqualified smash, but it was liked by reviewers and gathered enough of a cult following to generate a ho-hum sequel 28 years later. More recently we have had Wreck-It Ralph, a hit for Walt Disney, and Steven Spielberg's decently received Ready Player One. The former took $471 million worldwide, the latter $582 million.

Tron (1982)
Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One (2018)

This weekend, in Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer wander about an open-world video game that looks a little like Grand Theft Auto. As with the films listed above, there is much subversion of gaming conventions and nods towards already tired digital tropes.


If you want evidence that there is still a divide between this world and the old-school media, note how – in a small country that loves to pat itself on the back – few news sources have noted the cameo by a stratospherically successful Offaly man of whom few Irish Times readers will have heard. Seán William McLoughlin, late of Ballycumber in the King’s County, is known to millions as the vlogging gamer Jacksepticeye. He joins (thank you, cut and paste) Ninja, Pokimane, DanTDM and LazarBeam to comment on the action.

A whole genre

Consideration of that new stream of celebrity must wait for another day. What concerns us here is the odd anomaly whereby metatextual deconstructions of the video-game medium fare so much better than films adapted from individual titles. Nobody is asking you to love Tron or Wreck-It Ralph or Ready Player One, but it cannot be denied that the genre – and we can probably now call it that – has scored a greater percentage of successes than those in the unhappy caravan that contains Super Mario Bros (what were you doing, Dennis Hopper?), Prince of Persia (are you serious, Jake Gyllenhaal?) and Assassin’s Creed (Michael Fassbender? Really?).

Nothing remotely like this has happened with another medium. There is no sequence of films experimenting with the inner logic of the novel. We have been spared deconstructions of theatre on the big screen. Meanwhile, literary fiction and theatre provides the source for endless beloved films.

Enough has already been written about the dubious suitability of video games for cinematic translation. The connection between the two media is often a little too close for comfort. How do you approach a Grand Theft Auto adaptation when so much of that game is consciously borrowed from classic cinema and TV? (The Vice City incarnation is inconceivable without Brian De Palma’s Scarface.) There are rarely fleshed-out characters. Though games such as The Last of Us show some narrative ambition, one rarely encounters stories that cry out for wider exploitation.

It implies no criticism of video games to point out that there is just not much there for film-makers to work with. The two disciplines are doing different jobs.

Evolving form

But the questions asked by the medium itself are far more promising. It matters that, unlike the novel, the play or the popular song, the video game emerged some time after cinema. This remains an evolving form whose conventions are still in flux. Cinema thrives on closed universes – the mythical Old West, the gothic middle-Europe of Universal horror – and what better example of that than a digital environment defined by the imagined games designer. The older, largely visual medium is ideally suited to prod and poke the newer, largely visual medium.

Now 53, Shawn Levy, the director of Free Guy, is no callow teenager, but he is young enough to have grown up with the great arcade games of the first golden age. These films are not just engaging with the current zeitgeist. They help explain how we became what we are. It is worth paying attention.