Is ‘Resident Evil’ the Only “Good” Video Game-to-Movie Franchise?

Ali Larter, Wentworth Miller and Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil: Afterlife
Photo: Screen Gems

On September 10, Screen Gems will bring Resident Evil: Afterlife to theaters. It’s the fourth film in the franchise and the first Resident Evil film since Resident Evil: Extinction three years ago. The 2002 original earned $102 million worldwide on a $35 million budget. The two barely passable sequels were both made for approximately $45 million and brought in another $277 million in worldwide ticket sales. Not bad and it shows the franchise is continuing to grow, at least internationally.

I often hear people refer to the original Resident Evil as the only “good” video game-to-movie adaptation. I’m also one of those people. The first film was fun and, for the most part, made sense. Despite never having played the game, it never felt as if director Paul W.S. Anderson was forcing the style or narrative of the film to mimic the game unless it worked to the film’s benefit. In short, it felt like a movie and not an attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole. The same can’t necessarily be said for most any other movie based on a video game.

Some game adaptations, such as 2005’s Doom, tried to replicate the experience of playing the game. Others tried to remain dedicated to their respective game’s characters or ludicrous plotlines in an effort to appease gamers with little thought of general audience members. Ultimately the ability for these films to crossover from genre audiences to general audiences was lost. However, upon closer inspection, it seems none of that matters.

Quality and mass appeal don’t appear to be something video game adaptations are interested in. Unless you’re talking about bringing in Angelina Jolie to play Lara Croft it’s best to keep the budget low and the gamer appeal high, no matter the effect on the overall product.

When it comes to game adaptations I’ve seen my share, and I can honestly say I’ve never been all that impressed with them and based on reviews at RottenTomatoes I’m not the only one.

Since 1993 the best reviewed video game adaptation was Columbia’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which earned a measly 43% rating. The film only managed to take home $85.1 million worldwide on a whopping budget of $137 million. I don’t think we’re going to call that a success. In fact, based on the 24 game-to-movie adaptations I looked at it was the biggest loser of the bunch. If you’re wondering, Final Fantasy holds the third highest budget for a video game adaptation after Disney’s $200 million, 2010 release Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time followed by the first Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which was made for $115 million back in 2001.

Taking these numbers into consideration, here’s a look at some of the data I collected while putting this piece together. The below chart examines the more notable game adaptations since 1993 and their box-office returns and reported budgets:

Super Mario Bros.1993$20.9$20.9$48
Street Fighter1994$33.4$99.4$35
Mortal Kombat1995$70.4$122.1$20
Mortal Kombat: Annihilation1997$35.9$51.3$30
Pokemon: The First Movie1999$85.7$163.6$30
Pokemon: The Movie 20002000$43.7$133.8$30
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider2001$131.1$274.6$115
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within2001$32.1$85.1$137
Resident Evil2002$40.1$102.4$33
House of the Dead2003$10.2$13.7$12
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life2003$65.6$156.4$95
Resident Evil: Apocalypse2004$51.2$130.1$45
Alone in the Dark2005$5.1$10.3$20
Silent Hill2006$46.9$97.5$50
DOA: Dead or Alive2006$0.4$7.4$21
In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale2006$4.7$13.0$60
Resident Evil: Extinction2007$50.6$147.6$43
Max Payne2008$40.6$85.3$35
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li2009$8.7$12.7$50
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time2010$89.8$328.2$200
Box-office figures and production budgets were collected from Box-Office Mojo and Wikipedia.

Using the generic formula that says a movie must earn 1.5 times it’s production budget to break even, it tells us 14 of the above titles actually brought home profit based on their worldwide theatrical returns alone. This, of course is very simplistic math we’re talking about, but considering it’s an evaluation before they went on to DVD — where I would assume titles such as this would flourish — and also includes five Uwe Boll films — all of which were box-office losers — I’d say they’ve performed admirably ignoring their actual quality.

Now let’s consider the fact the highest RottenTomatoes rating for any of the 24 movies listed above is 43% and the fact 14 of those 24 turned a profit at the box-office. When I ask in the headline if Resident Evil is the only “good” video game-to-movie adaptation it pretty much makes the question moot. It clearly doesn’t matter, and reminds us box-office results don’t reflect quality, a fact films such as Spider-Man 3 and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen exemplified recently.

To say any one of the films listed above is better than another is an exercise in futility. After about one or two titles it’s more of a question of which one is the worst rather than the best. Video game adaptations have often proven to be some of the worst movies released, but the fact some of them have turned sizable profits gives studios reason to continue exploring the genre. The reason fans continue to turn out is that sheer hope for mindless entertainment and, similar to the recent rash of fangirl love for the Twilight franchise, people just love to see their favorite characters in the flesh on the big screen.

Take Mortal Kombat for instance. The 1995 original was terrible and yet it managed $122 million worldwide and spawned a sequel people consider to be even worse than the original and yet it still managed $51 million worldwide on a $30 million budget. No wonder a new film based on the popular Midway game is being considered as reported back in early June when the seven-minute short to the right first arrived online.

The other highly profitable franchise that stands out are the two Lara Croft films, which featured Angelina Jolie in her mid-to-late twenties as the buxom digital beauty come to life. The highly popular game was one reason for the franchise’s success, but it is clearly the one franchise on the board that made use of an A-list actor in the title role. Yet, after the sequel severely underperformed, Jolie never returned to the role. However, it was reported over a year ago Paramount is still interested in the franchise and hopes to bring a new actress to the role in the future. Financially it only makes sense. It seems to make sense with most all of these films in fact.

Only Doom and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li stand out as high profile money losers on the board above. Most of the films performed moderately well when worldwide box-office numbers are taken into account, not to mention these are the exact kinds of titles that perform extraordinarily well on DVD and Blu-ray. Considering Blu-ray easily won the format war over HD DVD I don’t think anyone is discounting the fact gamers and their PlayStation 3 consoles played the largest role in that victory. Just what titles exactly do you think they’re buying more of? Certainly not Michael Haneke’s latest.

Photo: Bungie / Eidos / 2K / Bioware

So considering the lack of innovation and imagination it takes to bring video games to the big screen it’s interesting how few seem to be in the upcoming pipeline. Certainly Gore Verbinski continues to talk of bringing Bioshock to theaters but the ballooning $160 million budget scared Universal away. I guess that’s because they were planning on spending $200 million on Peter Berg’s Battleship starring Rihanna. Video game adaptations. Board game adaptations. What’s the difference? Right?

As of now Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) is attached to direct Bioshock, but no telling if and when it will ever get made. Fellow Spanish helmer, Daniel Benmayor will direct Hitman 2 and Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend) is scripting an adaptation of BioWare’s “Mass Effect”. The “Halo” movie appears to be dead and based on all of this it would certainly seem as if the future of game adaptations seems bleak. Even the future of Resident Evil beyond Afterlife is a question mark.

With Resident Evil: Afterlife on the way in just a few weeks it seems Sony will be eying the box-office returns closely should fans have any interest in seeing a fifth film. The future of the franchise beyond Afterlife is currently in question although when the film was first announced in 2009 director Paul W.S. Anderson said he envisioned it as the “kick off [of] a brand new trilogy,” though that language has since been dialed way back.

As far as the question I asked in the headline goes, personally I’d say Resident Evil is the only decent game adaptation franchise that has the only “good” game adapted film by way of the 2002 original.

Video game movies continue to disappoint me, which is why I recently said in an interview with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World director, Edgar Wright, that it would appear the only way to make a good video game movie is to make one that’s not based on a video game. Do you agree that’s the case or do you still hold out hope Hollywood will one day get things right?

Looking ahead to Resident Evil: Afterlife, based on the trailer it would seem the fourth film will have a mix of everything from the first three films in the franchise including corporate intrigue, big scary monsters, some dusty desert action and, of course, infected zombie-like people. It also looks to take a few bites out of The Matrix and Blade, but will it work?

Is the 3D another gimmicky crutch to support a deteriorating story? Will Afterlife give reason for the franchise to carry on, or will this serve as the nail in the coffin of the one video game-to-movie franchise people seem to consider “good”?

If you ask me, I’m interested in Afterlife as much as I’ve been interested in the other Resident Evil films. As far as expectations, one indicator will be whether or not critics are invited to screen it for review considering we weren’t invited to review Extinction before it was released, a film I’d say was even worse than Apocalypse and really added nothing to the franchise other than some sandy visuals. I do like how it looks like the new film has somewhat reverted back to the glossy nature of the first film. The funny part of it all is the fact the first film wasn’t some monumental achievement. It too was decent at best so it’s not as if we are asking for Anderson to split the atom… Just deliver a fun movie that doesn’t feel as if it’s rehashing old territory. Is that asking too much from a video game adaptation?

I guess we’ll find out on September 10, but the debate is open for you to begin weighing in now. The comment section is directly below, have at it.