Video game movies are looking for their X-Men.
Like comic book movies before them, they need a big movie, something unique and special, that legitimizes them in the eyes of the public. No one saw The Avengers coming, so why can't we look forward to a future where we won't see a Fallout or Mass Effect or Assassin's Creed movie smash box office records? Video game movies have been so rotten for so long that someone is eventually bound to stumble across a formula for how to do them right. Someone is going to break the mold and discover how to make movies based on games palatable on the big screen.
Need for Speed probably won't be that movie, but it feels like it might be a step in the right direction.
This is not a discussion of quality. With a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 25%, the adaptation of the popular racing franchise hasn't won over too many critics. However, let's look at what it does right (at least in theory).
IT UNDERSTANDS THE GAME
The Need for Speed games have never been big on story, with the most popular entries in the series being arcade-style racers where players drive anonymous cards in anonymous street races, playing to win and make high scores. With the exception of a game or two here and there, these are not games about narrative progression. These are games about giving the player the thrill of being involved in a high stakes competition where your personal safety is on the line.
Need for Speed understands the appeal of the game. It also understands that the particular appeal associated with it doesn't stand on its own and it needs something time-tested and proven to back it up. Therefore, Need for Speed becomes a practical car-chase movie, an experience where the thrills come from watching actual cars get involved in actual stunts. The thought that you're watching real drivers risk their lives for your amusement is the closest a video game movie can come to capturing the feeling you have when you play the game and have total control over your successes and failures. This familiar thrill is then packaged as a fairly straightforward revenge movie, a plot that feels designed to accommodate Need for Speed's more primal instincts.
IT UNDERSTANDS THE AUDIENCE
To fully appreciate how much Need for Speed understands its audience and the game its adapting, compare it to something like Resident Evil. Although the Resident Evil series will never win awards for competent storytelling, the game won its fan base as a horror series, tasking players with surviving difficult situations with limited resources. The thrill of the game came from surviving desperate situations. But for some reason, the movie took things in the opposite direction, giving its main character superpowers and concentrating on huge action set pieces instead of even remotely trying to frighten or unsettle the audience.
Need for Speed isn't that much better than Resident Evil, but it gets its source material. It actively seeks to find a way to make the appeal of game work on the big screen and it does it while pairing it with a narrative that, while not pretty, gets the job done. If that's not a step in the right direction, what is?
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