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Can Uncharted break the curse of an entire genre?

Video game movies have a dubious history – but whether Mark Wahlberg and Tom Holland will confound this critic’s expectations remains to be seen

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.

Uncharted is in cinemas from February 11

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.

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Amid this unappealing crowd, the thrifty but profitable Resident Evil series, adapted from a tense Jap- anese game about surviving a corporate zombie outbreak, stretched to six films between 2002 and 2016. While branded brainless by critics, most entries feature some thrilling action set-pieces as amnesiac Milla Jovovich evolves into a capable badass. The recent reboot Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021) could have done with some Milla magic.

Even when Hollywood has grudgingly stumped up big stars and decent budgets, the video game movie has struggled. Angelina Jolie was perfectly cast as an aristocratic relic hunter in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and its sequel but no-one remembers much about the actual films.

More recently, Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed (both 2016) were marketed as game-based films shaped by creative talents who really understood and respected the source material. Both were clanging flops.

The reality may be that video games are now so prevalent that they simply do not require a live-action Hollywood hit to be legitimised. Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) was crammed with gaming culture references while Free Guy (2021) – a notable pandemic-era success starring Ryan Reynolds – channelled all the tropes of massive online role-playing epics like World of Warcraft without being beholden to any of them.

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Games have arguably slingshotted past films in the cultural hierarchy. A decade ago, Disney acquired Lucasfilm (in other words, the entire Star Wars franchise) and Marvel for around £3 billion each.

Now Microsoft is preparing to shell out £52bn to buy video game publisher Activision Blizzard. Keanu Reeves, an actor who endured mocking reviews early in his career but is now so beloved he has transcended criticism, seems to know which way the wind is blowing. He and Carrie-Anne Moss recently starred in The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience, available for free on PC and PlayStation 5.

This brief but thrilling interactive shoot-’em-up was not an advert for a new game based on The Matrix franchise, or a new movie in the series. It was just an elaborate promotion for Unreal 5, a professional development engine for… making more games.

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic. @graemevirtue

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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