The humble video game movie tends to get it from all sides. Critics turn up their noses and gaming nerds are often equally hard to please, albeit on very different points of principle. Kids are perhaps the most forgiving demographic for the video game film, which is why the belated Sonic the Hedgehog film franchise has done well to squarely target them.
Now out on DVD and streaming, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 replicates the first film’s garish formula of faintly ironic in-jokery, chase-heavy action embellished with garish, primary-coloured CGI and industrial-strength hamming by Jim Carrey as Sonic’s nemesis, Dr Robotnik. It gets the job done, perhaps a little too thoroughly at more than two hours in length.
Many of the best video game adaptations succeed by making it all a bit of a joke. I’ve previously stretched the definition of the genre by citing 2016’s candy-colored nonsense animation The Angry Birds Movie (Amazon Prime) as my favorite video game film, but Rob Letterman’s Pokemon Detective Pikachu (Google Play) also embraces the caffeinated, neon-soaked surrealism of the enterprise. Riffing shamelessly off Who Framed Roger Rabbitits gumshoe investigation format brings an element of game-playing into the narrative.
Released in 2019, it was only the second live-action film to be made from a Nintendo game, almost three decades after Super Mario Bros (Amazon), which has aged better than people might have guessed in 1993, when its ancient, split-universe story, postmodern pileup of cultural reference points and chaotically imaginative production design and effects left people largely baffled. Today it’s rather a romp, even if its perfectly cast star, Bob Hoskins, once described it as “a fucking nightmare”.
Even at the time, however, it was a clear cut above the other gaming-based would-be blockbusters churned out in its wake. Street Fighter (Amazon) rather cannily attempted to fashion its source material into just another Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle: above average on that front, with bonus camp points for Kylie Minogue in military beret-wearing kicks mode, but with scarcely a nod to the distinctive action style of the game itself. A year later, Mortal Kombat (Apple TV) served fans a little better. Its fight scenes are well staged, honoring both the game and vintage Hong Kong action cinema, although there’s a whiff of cheese to the whole thing, not least when game slogans such as “Flawless victory!” are converted into human dialogue.
Crucially, Mortal Kombat was the making of British director Paul WS Anderson, who has gone on to become the defining auteur of this genre in collaboration with his wife and leading lady, Milla Jovovich. Their series of six Resident Evil films started out predictably maligned, before gradually building a critical following with their gonzo, grand-guignol action set pieces and gritted-teeth commitment. Resident Evil: Extinction (Now TV) may be the most demented of them, and therefore the best. Most recently, Anderson and Jovovich turned their attention to the self-explanatory game Monster Hunter (Now TV), with similarly ornate world-building and cheerfully empty-headed writing.
The Tomb Raider films – the first, brashly comic-book-style ones with Angelina Jolie – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (both BBC iPlayer) – and the more recent, more subdued but straightforwardly compelling reboot with Alicia Vikander, Tomb Raider (Netflix) – likewise hit a sweet spot between self-aware silliness and earnestly serious action. Lean too far towards the latter and you’re in trouble. In 2016, Duncan Jones’ optimistically titled Warcraft: The Beginning (Apple TV) was scuppered as much by its humorlessness as its ugly digital effects, while Australian arthouse director Justin Kurzel’s attempt to make Assassin’s Creed (Amazon) a solemn medieval fantasy epic with his Macbeth stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard was a dour, hubristic disaster.
Some popular games just come with too much baggage to thrill on the screen: better, sometimes, to make something fresh from a less iconic source, such as last year’s small-scale comedy horror Werewolves Within (Amazon). A quick, limber little B-movie packed with solid jump scares and grisly violence, you wouldn’t know it was based on a PlayStation VR game if you hadn’t been told. Perhaps that should be the bar to which all video game movies aspire.
Also new on streaming and DVD
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s near-literally entrancing venture into the Colombian wilderness may find him off home turf, but he’s still fully in his seductively strange, sensual element. As a Scottish outsider seeking the source of the uncanny sonic disruptions that may or may not be in her head, Tilda Swinton is perfectly on her director’s wavelength.
I found Terence Davies’s Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion disappointing stuff, yet the life and work of Siegfried Sassoon fires his film-making to far more moving effect. Powered by a magnificent lead turn from Jack Lowden, this portrait brims with ideas and feeling, braiding sexual, historical and poetic lines of study into a rich whole.
Following on from the British Film Institute’s Robert Bresson retrospective, this Blu-ray release of his final film – restored from the original negative – finds its near 40-year-old, Tolstoy-inspired anti-capitalist parable in very good nick indeed. Bresson’s ascetic, cut-to-the-bone storytelling style ages more gracefully than many of his flashier peers, while the film’s politics remain painfully relevant.
Festival Focus: Locarno
With a new edition of this Swiss film festival kicking off this week, Mubi rounds up some offbeat highlights from last year’s program, including French director Emilie Aussel’s woozily seasonal, tragedy-brushed coming-of-age tale Our Eternal Summer; vibrant, mental health-focused Thai animated short squish!; and Ghanaian director Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah’s witty revenge ride Public Toilet Africa.