Sunday, April 21, 2024

Video Game Movies and The Rock

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If there’s one universal constant in the world of film, it’s that movies based on video games will not be good. From Mario to Mortal Kombat, video game movies stink and it seems there is very little we can do to stop that. But why are they so bad? There are a lot of different theories out there. And today, I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and add my personal theory as to why video game movies tend to be bad. And to back my theory up, I will be using three different movies with one constant between them: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Yes, The Rock. During his professional wrestling and acting career he managed to star in three different video game movies. One of them was an absolutely terrible action flick. The second was better, but still a pretty mediocre action film. The third movie happens to be the second best video game movie ever made. This in spite of of the fact that it doesn’t quite measure up to the emotional weight or skill of the first one. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the bad movie first, and also one of the first ones Dwayne Johnson worked on: Doom.

Doom (2005)

The Rock plays “Sarge,” the leader of a a group of Marines in the year 2026. After receiving a distress signal from a research base on Mars, he leads a team (Consisting of ‘Destroyer’, ‘Mac’, ‘Goat’, ‘Portman’, ‘The Kid’, ‘Duke’, and ‘Reaper’) to find out what happened. After arriving and meeting up with Reaper’s sister, the marines find the base under attack by mutants. They have to fight to survive the attacking mutants along with dissension and insanity within their ranks.

Good Parts:

The Universal Logo isn’t the traditional earth. Instead, its an image of Mars. That’s kind of clever. The character of Dr. Carmack is very clearly named after John Carmack, which was also a nice touch. The physical design of the Pinkie is neat, even if the fight itself isn’t exactly spectacular. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Bad Parts:

Where do I even begin? The bad science on display with these mutants being humans that have an extra chromosome pair? The lackluster fights where monsters are either completely invincible or go down with with a single bullet? The complete lack of follow-up given to some side plots, such as The Kid taking some sort of drug to help him stay ‘sharp’, but never really following up on that afterwards? Perhaps the worst part is Portman, who goes down as one of the most disgusting characters in a film ever. At the very start of the movie, less than ten minutes in, he’s asked how he’ll spend his leave. “Locked in a hotel room with a bottle of tequila and three she-boys!” is his response and even before the words had completely left his mouth, I wanted to see him dead.

How does it compare to the video game its based on?

The Doom movie’s main problem, aside from being cheap and trying to be a Predator rip-off, is that it’s afraid of its source material. One of the reasons that the 2016 reboot of the Doom franchise was so well received was that it wasn’t afraid to embrace the silliness and camp of the initial concept (a demonic invasion of Mars) while at the same time taking time to build a serious world and give some genuine pathos to the main character. When he wasn’t fist bumping little toy action figures, of course.

The Doom movie, by contrast, has the trappings of the game but at the last minute either tones them down or removes them entirely. Mutants replace demons. The Pinkie, despite being a visually striking redesign and something I’d like to see in the game series, is not killed by the chainsaw that Reaper picked up earlier in the fight, but by a single bullet to the head.  The extended first person sequence towards the end of the movie looks nothing like the gameplay of any Doom game. Sarge fires the BFG three times in the entire movie and each time it misses its target. Perhaps worst of all, the final fight in the movie between an evil Sarge and a good guy Reaper…is a fist fight. They both specifically drop their weapons to engage in a fist fight. If that doesn’t go against the spirit of Doom, I don’t know what does.

Our next movie is less afraid to be silly. Unfortunately, it still has problems of its own.

Rampage (2018)

The Rock stars as Davis Okoye, a former US Army Special Forces soldier who now works as a primatologist in California. He works most closely with George, a rare albino gorilla he rescued from poachers years ago and who understands sign language. One night, George investigates debris from from a space station that landed in his enclosure. He becomes infected by a pathogen created by an amoral genetics company. The pathogen causes George to grow in size and aggression. Can Davis save his friend and help stop two other animals exposed to the pathogen from going on a rampage?

The Good:

This movie was made almost thirteen years after the Doom movie, and you can tell that Dwayne Johnson has gotten much more comfortable as an actor. His delivery is more natural and the jokes he tells are quite good. In addition to that, this movie has an actual budget for special effects and uses it well, with a good looking fight between the three giant monsters. I was tickled by how many attack helicopters there were in the movie. You hardly ever see them in action movies like this.

The Bad:

The movie isn’t without its flaws. The antagonists are flat and might as well not even exist for all they actually do. A good number of the supporting cast in general tend to be non-entities after saying their one line. A few of them seem like they are being built up for more of a role, but vanish after their sole scene. In addition, while a good number of the jokes land, there are more than a few that fail to produce any laughter. And the government official (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who becomes an ally? He’s a fine enough character, but I never want to hear his Southern accent again.

How does it compare to the game its based on?

Rampage is better than Doom by any standard. Its a better action movie, has better effects, and the acting is probably twice as good. It’s even better from a video game standpoint, as at least things that happen in the movie happen in the game. But…that’s about it. They happen. There’s no real justification for why they happen. And when there is, the action that follows is almost…mean coming from a protagonist. The movie is afraid to really embrace the carnage that made the original Rampage fun to play. In the game, you’d smash up skyscrapers and cars and eat people by the dozens for bonus points. In the movie, while there is plenty of smashing, its not quite as…joyous as it is in the game.

When I saw the movie for the first time, I compared it with my friends to flavorless instant ramen. I think that’s an apt comparison. It’ll fill you up for a bit, but there’s nothing to really remember it by. This stands in stark contrast to our last movie, which may not be a ‘great’ movie, but is a great video game movie.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Spencer Gilpin is a shy, nervous high school student, who, along with his friend and two female students, starts up a video game he found in the school’s basement. When he does so, he and his friends find themselves transported to Jumanji and inhabiting the bodies of the avatars they chose. Spencer is “Dr. Smolder Bravestone” played by The Rock. Together with his friends, he must find a way to win the game and escape Jumanji with their lives.

The Good:

Like Rampage, this movie boasts a great performance from all of its actors. Dwayne Johnson is totally on point playing an awkward teenage boy. And Jack Black’s performance as a slightly snooty stuck up teenage girl is truly a wonder to behold. In addition to this, the special effects are top notch, and the humor lands nearly 99% of the time. And while it doesn’t quite match the original movie in terms of pathos (we’ll go over that in a second), it does have great action scenes that more than match the original movie.

The Bad:

While there’s not much to complain about with this movie, there are a couple of weak points. The first, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle lacks a lot of the emotional weight of the first movie. While there are a few sad scenes, its strictly an action movie, which prevent it from being equal to the first one. And there are points where the plot becomes muddled and honestly doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense. In addition to the slightly muddy plot, the characters themselves are very tropey. These particular arcs have been done before, and while they play with the formula a bit and have the characters at least be aware of the tropes, the people in the audience have still seen them before.

How does it compare to the game its based on?

Now, I can hear some of you right now. “This is a cop out! Jumanji isn’t based on a video game at all!” And that’s true. There is no specific game that Jumanji is based on.  Of course, people say the same thing about the best video game movie ever made: Wreck-It Ralph. My theory is that Jumanji is a better movie for not being based on any one video game and therefore can reference them all. Not only that, but it also embraces some of the camp and silliness that all video games have.

One of the best jokes in the movie comes after the protagonists are rescued by Nigel (played by Rhys Darby). Nigel begins to tell them the backstory of the game, and after the protagonists try to ask him a question not related to the story, Nigel begins his spiel again. Spencer points out that this is an NPC. He doesn’t have any other dialogue other than the quest dialogue and won’t be able to tell them anything else until they accept the quest. It’s that playful, slightly joking but still affectionate attitude towards the subject matter that’s missing from nearly all other video game movies. Even the most serious video game still has certain conventions, and most video game movies don’t respect that. Yes, it’s played for laughs in this case, but it doesn’t have to be. All that’s needed is a respect for the source material you’re working with.

Of course, sometimes the material you have really doesn’t fit a movie’s structure. And that’s another strength Jumanji has over the two previous movies I mentioned. Because its not based around a single property, Jumanji isn’t limited to having its story be about one thing. Or having to use a specific item or plot device. Its free to pick whatever best fits the specific scene or plot at that moment. Having this freedom is great, and it’s what elevates this movie above most other video game films.

“Can you see what The Rock…is playing?”

According to IMDB, Dwayne Johnson hasn’t finished with video game based movies quite yet. Indeed, he’s working on a sequel to Jumanji right now. And that’s great. If the second Jumanji movie is as good as the first one and keeps the same tone towards video games, I can rest assured that my theory about video game movies still works. And if its not? Well, despite how terrible Doom was and how mediocre I felt Rampage was, both of those movies still had The Rock in them. And no matter if his acting is good, or so bad its good, it’s always enjoyable to watch.

Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures, John Wells Productions, and New Line Cinema

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