With the arrival of Need for Speed in theaters this week, I've been thinking about video game movies a lot lately.
One of my earliest memories of video game movies is the stinging disappointment I felt after watching the live-action Super Mario Bros. – a feeling I revisited a year later with the Street Fighter movie. My bad choices didn't stop there, though, and to this day, I still feel like I was the victim of a cruel trick when I willingly gave up 96 minutes of my teenage years to the travesty of Double Dragon. (What comes after “Fool me twice...” in that mantra?)
Basically, by the time Mortal Kombat came along in 1995, my standards were so low I remember thinking that the big-screen version of Midway Games' arcade fighter could very well be the gaming world's greatest cinematic achievement – and there's an argument to be made that it was, and still is, exactly that.
Almost 21 years have passed since Super Mario Bros. kicked off Hollywood's grand experiment in big-screen adaptations of video games, and only in recent years have enough projects avoided the “flop” label to make the genre as a whole come close to breaking even as far as critical and commercial successes. However, as I mentioned in a column last year, there's a good chance that the next batch of video game movies could turn that trend around in much the same way Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and Marvel's cinematic universe did for comic book movies.
In order to get a better grasp on where the genre of video game movies currently stands, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at all 31 movies based on video games that received a wide release in the U.S. to date and find out which films have had success either critically or commercially, and which projects have been “game over” from the start.
Let's start with the highlights...
The 10 Highest Grossing Movies Based on Video Games
1. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ($131,168,070)
2. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ($90,759,676)
3. Pokemon: The First Movie ($85,744,662)
4. Mortal Kombat ($70,454,098)
5. Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life ($65,660,196)
6. Resident Evil: Afterlife ($60,128,566)
7. Resident Evil: Apocalypse ($51,201,453)
8. Resident Evil: Extinction ($50,648,679)
9. Silent Hill ($46,982,632)
10. Pokemon: The Movie 2000 ($43,758,684)
Among the 10 video game movies that generated the most box office revenue in the U.S. since their initial release (via Box Office Mojo), there are few surprises. The first Tomb Raider movie broke all kinds of records for both video game adaptations and action films with a female lead, so its presence at the top of the list makes sense – though the gap between the first film and its sequel is interesting, given that The Cradle of Life received more positive reviews. It's also interesting to see the consistency on display in the Resident Evil franchise, with each film generating pretty reliable revenue without too much of a falloff between installments. (The most recent film, Resident Evil: Retribution, came in at #11 on the list, just two spots ahead of the original Resident Evil.)
With many of these projects, however, the box office revenue here in the U.S. doesn't tell the whole story. While Prince of Persia only made $90 million domestically to offset its $200 million budget, the film went on to earn more than $245 million overseas. The same relationship holds true for the Resident Evil franchise and many of the other movies based on video games, as they often have much more active, free-spending fan bases outside the U.S.
Now for the other end of the rankings...
The 10 Lowest Grossing Movies Based on Video Games
1. DOA: Dead or Alive ($480,813)
2. Pokemon Heroes ($746,381)
3. Pokemon 4Ever ($1,727,447)
4. Double Dragon ($2,341,309)
5. BloodRayne ($2,405,420)
6. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale ($4,775,656)
7. Alone in the Dark ($5,178,569)
8. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li ($8,742,261)
9. House of the Dead ($10,249,719)
10. Wing Commander ($11,578,059)
On the flip side, the list of video game movies that earned the least amount of money since their release is similarly predictable, though I can't help feeling a little guilty about contributing whatever the cost of a movie ticket was in 1994 to the $2.3 million that Double Dragon generated. It's also worth noting that four of the 10 lowest grossing films were directed by the same person: controversial filmmaker Uwe Boll. I don't want to say the films' performance is his fault (because he might find me and punch me), so read into that however you choose.
As for the three films at the top of the list, their box office performance (or lack thereof) is more a factor of the release they received than any other factor, as each Pokemon movie was shown in fewer than 250 theaters, and D.O.A. – which received relatively decent reviews – only made it into around 500 theaters.
And on the subject of reviews...
The 10 Best Reviewed Movies Based on Video Games
1. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (46.5%)
2. Mortal Kombat (45.5%)
3. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (43%)
4. DOA: Dead or Alive (36%)
5. Resident Evil: Retribution (35%)
6. Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (33.5%)
7. Resident Evil (33%)
8. Resident Evil: Extinction (31.5%)
9. Resident Evil: Afterlife (30%)
10. Silent Hill (29.5%)
Before I even get into any observations about the movies that made this list, I should point out that the review grade I attributed to each film is based on the average of each film's aggregate reviews on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Both sites provide “scores” for each film on a 0-100 scale (with “100” for what is essentially a perfect movie), so I averaged the two numbers together to get the median review of each film.
Now this list is where things get interesting. Only six of the 10 highest grossing video game movies earned reviews that were positive enough to make the cut, and even more surprising is that one of the lowest grossing films managed to find its way into the top five best reviewed films. Of course, it's worth noting that not even one movie managed to reach 50-percent approval from reviewers – meaning that even the most well-received movie based on a video game disappointed more than half of the people who watched it.
This list also makes it pretty clear that the disconnect we occasionally see between films that succeed financially and those that succeed critically is well represented in the video game genre, too. That the highest grossing movie of all time in this genre (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which had an average 26-percent approval rating) didn't even make the cut is a little surprising.
And that brings us to...
The 10 Worst Reviewed Movies Based on Video Games
1. Double Dragon (0%)
2. Alone in the Dark (5%)
3. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (8.5%)
4. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (9.5%)
5. House of the Dead (9.5%)
6. Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (10%)
7. BloodRayne (11%)
8. Street Fighter (12%)
9. Wing Commander (15.5%)
10. Super Mario Bros. (16%)
And there you have it, folks: a score that accurately reflects the shame I brought upon myself when I bought a ticket to see Double Dragon years ago. Moving on...
Once again, Uwe Boll's films are all over this list like a bad rash. Still, I can't help being surprised that the recent Silent Hill: Revelation 3D received worse reviews than movies like Wing Commander and Street Fighter. I watched the Silent Hill sequel, and though it never managed to capture the same eerie vibe that made the first film fun, I didn't think it was terrible – and certainly not House of the Dead or Bloodrayne terrible.
Still, while it's fun to look at the big picture and see how all of these movies compare when the numbers get crunched, I can't help feeling like the real takeaway is this: the bar is set pretty low for video game movies right now.
Of the 31 films based on video games that received a wide release in the U.S., only six managed to make the cut on both the highest grossing and best reviewed lists. Those six films – Mortal Kombat, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Resident Evil: Extinction, Resident Evil: Afterlife and Silent Hill – have collectively become the only frame of reference we have for future video game movies' success (and many of them weren't considered “successful” at all by Hollywood industry standards).
And as much as I enjoyed a few of those films, I'm fairly certain I'm not alone in hoping Need for Speed leaves them in its dust. If this little number-crunching experiment has taught me anything, it's that we're well past due to for video game movies to raise the bar.
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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