As a freelance treasure hunter seeking out mythical tombs, Nathan Drake should be used to dealing with curses. But even Drake – a wise-cracking PlayStation avatar about to be played by fresh-faced Tom Holland in new film Uncharted – might struggle with this one: the curse of the video game movie.
Ever since Super Mario Bros (1993) took a bestselling Nintendo cartridge and mutated it into a notorious cinematic belly-flop starring Dennis Hopper as an obnoxious lizard man, film adaptations of popular video games have had a reputation for being calamities. Around 40 live-action movies based on games have been released since 1993 and it took until Detective Pikachu (2019), inspired by the durable Pokémon franchise, to post a score much above 50 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. It is a woeful track record.
Like his cinematic inspiration Indiana Jones, Drake usually snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. But this time the odds are stacked against him. The Uncharted film began development in 2008 with Mark Wahlberg attached to star. Since then it has churned through seven different directors and Wahlberg has shifted into the role of Drake’s rascally elder mentor. If Uncharted does score this week, it will be an against-the-odds win for gamers.
How did things get so bad? Back in the 1990s film producers licensing video games were only interested in exploiting a name familiar to arcade-obsessed kids. The garish Street Fighter (1994) – featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kylie among its cast – was another high-profile disaster in the wake of Super Mario Bros that helped solidify the idea of a curse, even if it has recently been reclaimed as a camp classic.
In the 2000s, most gaming films were sub-standard B-movies with an extra dollop of brand recognition. Hell-themed shoot-’em-up Doom (2005) was diabolical despite featuring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as a rugged space marine. Turgid assassin tale Hitman (2007) and its sequel sapped the satire out of the wicked game series, while vigilante crime drama Max Payne (2008) – also starring Wahlberg – was absolutely joyless.
But what really torpedoed the grading curve was the output of shlocky German director Uwe Boll, who cranked out charmless movies of games like House of the Dead (2003), Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne (both 2005) and more. Some of Boll’s efforts are considered the worst films of all time.