OP-ED: The Gears of War “Movie”: Games and Hollywood

Hollywood has … problems.

Okay, that’s kind of a lame lead. We all know that. Everywhere has problems. Is Hollywood unique?

Well … yes. Most of their problems are pretty specific. And a lot of them are of their own, self-inflicted making. If you want a fascinating hour, go look up a podcast on how things like Academy Awards are determined and you’ll be exposed to an almost insane feedback loop wherein people make movies to please the academy so that they can win awards to make movies to please the academy.

Yeah, Hollywood is weird. But one of their more puzzling “problems,” the one that I want to talk about today, is their obsession with “fixing what isn’t broke.”

That’s right. I want to talk about video game movies.

Now, really quick, I’m not saying with “fix what isn’t broke” that movies based on video-game properties have been a success. They’ve been anything but that. Which usually means a box-office bomb. 

Sands, do I mean box-office bomb. Video-game movies are generally (with a few exceptions) some of the worst films around. Movies like Super Mario Bros. are universally acknowledged as complete disasters, to the degree that they wind up being riffled alongside the true cinematic duds of history like Birdemic or Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Now granted, they’re not entirely bad. There’s a certain charm to Raul Julia’s portrayal of Bison in Street Fighter, for example, and the legacy of the Mortal Kombat theme is never going to leave (forget it, the song’s a treasure).

But when you look back over the history of movies made from games, short of a few recent successes that are fairly fresh, or the odd production that doesn’t come from Hollywood (like the animated Street Fighter II adaptation, which manages both to be entertaining to watch and somehow relate to the game, imagine that), the picture is pretty clear.

Hollywood has delivered dud after dud, even when handed hugely successful game properties whose success should have been so straightforward that it should have been a no-brainer. Like Tomb RaiderAll Hollywood needed to do there was just adapt the plot of the 2013 reboot it was “based on” (which, if you haven’t played it, is amazing and currently $3 on the Steam summer sale). That was all they needed to do. Maybe trim a few scenes here and there, because movie, not game, but that was it. The game had a fantastic cast, a fantastic story of survival.

But no. Hollywood had to “improve” it. By removing the diverse cast of characters, and replacing them with one token friend who’s there for exposition. By removing the survival elements of the island. Oh, and by swapping out the shipwrecked cult for a paramilitary organization, and rather than the plot being trying to get off the island with their lives, it’s instead saving the world (groan) from said evil paramilitary organization and an ancient plague …

Ugh. Yeah, it was bad. How bad? My own mother, who was quite interested in seeing the movie adaptation because of how much her children had talked about the game, came away feeling so insulted by it she still griped about how awful it was a full eight months later, calling it one of the dumbest movies she’d ever seen and utterly confused as to how Hollywood had gotten it out of the bits and pieces she’d picked up from me and my siblings.

And Hollywood has learned … nothing. Not if the most recent tidbits of the new Gears of War movie are anything to go off of. If anything, they’re doubling down.

How so? Well, Gears of War has been a fairly successful franchise since the first title’s launch in 2006. Set on the distant world of Sera, this Sci-Fi tale follows the remains of humanity struggling to survive against the seemingly unstoppable Locust Horde, who boiled out of the ground a decade earlier and have been gradually been waging a war of extinction against humanity.

Now, spoilers here if you haven’t played the games (but if you’re a gamer, you really should give them a shot, they’re quite good), but there’s a lot of good material in Gears universe. First, you’ve got the setting itself: the planet of Sera.

Sera is a world with a mostly dead core. So unlike Earth, you don’t get the same techtonic movements we have. Instead, you get a world were you really can tunnel down for miles upon miles, into a whole underground ecosystem.

In fact, mankind are the aliens in the Gears scenario, appearing roughly two to three thousand years before the start of the first game in a sudden burst that had them starting in the Iron Age almost immediately (in other words, it’s very likely that mankind on Sera is the result of a wayward colony ship wreck). The planet’s native intelligent inhabitants, the Locust, were subterranean and simply stopped going to the surface, existing only as stories and legends of bogeymen … right up until, well, that’d be a major spoiler, but they burst out of the ground as a result and decide to take back the surface.

I’m really only covering some of the most basic elements of the backstory, but the point is, Gears has quite a bit of lore and world to it. Lore and world you’d expect someone to keep if they made a film adaptation.

Unless that adaptation is made by Hollywood, apparently. Last week it was announced that after years of the license being available, Universal Studios had at last picked it up and have started work on “adapting” the series to film.

The emphasis on “adapting” quickly became clear, however, as the spokesman for the project quickly noted that for all intents and purposes, the movie will be set in an “alternate universe” from the game. It will not share the same characters. The lore will be different. It will not be “dependent” on the world and characters built by several games, multiple books, and a comic series (all of which are part of the new form of media where they’re all one canon).

In fact, the only similarity that we’ve been given so far is that the planet it will be set on will be named “Sera” though it was quickly pointed out that it will be a different Sera.

The justification given for dumping large amounts of the world and setting that make Gears, well, Gears?

“In order for the movie to be successful, it has to be a great movie first and a Gears movie second.”

I’m sorry, what? Hold up, what sort of justification is that?

A pathetic one, that’s what. There’s nothing about the setting of Gears that somehow means it couldn’t be a fantastic movie and still be true to the lore, universe, and setting. Unless your mindset is that it can’t be good simply because of the origins of the setting.

And honestly, that’s what I think they’re holding. I legitimately believe, and this latest announcement only reinforces, that Hollywood seems to have a preoccupation with proving that they’re “better” in some way than these video game franchises that have completely eclipsed their profit margins. So when they’re handed a license to a game adaptation, the first thing they think they have to do is remove most of it in order to “fix it.”

That’s why the Tomb Raider film, which should have been so straightforward a six-year-old could have been the project manager, turned out as the utter disaster it was. Hollywood had to “improve it” first, and in the process, they utterly trashed it. Street Fighter? Similar story. Mario Bros. Again, same deal (the director straight up wanted to make a cyberpunk dystopian film and was told he could do that with Mario).

And now Gears of War looks to be the latest casualty in a long line of butcher video game adaptations where Hollywood just can’t handle dealing with a successful franchise that isn’t theirs.

And if it bombs? Well, then it reinforces the market in a way that’s beneficial to Hollywood. “Games have bad stories, don’t make good movies, etc” is a mindset that’s great for Hollywood’s bottom line, as it reinforces the idea that you should be spending your time with their films rather than with these games which look so bad now that Hollywood is done with them.

Now, there have been some good game adaptations lately. Like Detective Pikachu, which was a lot of fun. But if you look at the people and the studio behind it, you find that pretty much everyone involved with the project was both new to the industry and grew up on—you guessed it—Pokemon. Lacking the chains of Hollywood and with a vested interest in actually adapting the world for the big screen, they went ahead and did just that and created a perfectly good adaptation.

But again, I find it very telling that it took a new crop of talent that had grown up on the game to actually give the series its dues. They came in wanting to respect the source material and put it up on the big screen, and they did.

But Hollywood at its core doesn’t seem interested in this idea. There’s no respect for something people love (and, if I may be blunt, love to the degree that they’re making it far more profitable than any Hollywood endeavor). Instead, they insist on “fixing” what isn’t broken, talking themselves up in the process, and releasing something that’s ultimately broken and worthy only of mockery.

Look, I’d be there in the seats opening week if a Gears of War movie actually was true to the source material. Or if there was a streaming show that followed a group of stranded (think refugees) after E-day.

But I’ve already been told Hollywood isn’t giving us that. Instead they’re going to take some names from the series, slap their own plot, setting, and whatnot over it, and then try to market it as Gears of War in the interest of “fixing it.”

I already own several Gears games and have even run a year-long tabletop campaign set in the Gears of War universe. Sera isn’t broke. It doesn’t need fixing.

Hollywood, on the other hand, does if they think this recipe is a model for success.

But those are just my thoughts. What do you think?

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