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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

TECHNOLOGY

Hollywood's passion for the video game

Movie executives look to Chun-Li and friends for inspiration


Special to The Japan Times

Video games aren't just for playing. More and more, they're Hollywood's attempt to lure folks off their sofas and into movie theaters.

Kristen Kreuk in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
Kung-fu master: Kristen Kreuk lays the boot in as Chun-Li in the new movie "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li." © CAPCON CO., LTD

The box-office success of movie versions of controversial fighting game "Mortal Kombat" (1995), treasure- hunting adventure "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (2001) and zombie horror "Resident Evil" (2002; known in Japan as "Biohazard") showed Hollywood that video-game flicks can pay off big time.

The movie industry's most recent effort is "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li." Based on the popular fighting franchise from Osaka-based game developer Capcom, the movie tells the story of Chun-Li, a Chinese martial-arts expert who is out to avenge her father.

This isn't Hollywood's first stab at a "Street Fighter" movie. Back in 1994, a motion-picture adaptation hit theaters: Dubbed "Street Fighter," it was the second-ever live-action movie version of a video game. The first was a year earlier, with the woeful "Super Mario Bros." — a movie so bad that its star Bob Hoskins publicly claimed it to be the worst movie he ever acted in. ("Mario" creator Nintendo has since focused its energy on its highly successful "Pokemon" anime feature films.)

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kylie Minogue and Raul Julia, the first "Street Fighter" movie was an ensemble piece, showcasing many of the game's characters. Unlike the cast of characters in "Street Fighter," "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li" tells the story of just one character.

"I think they decided to focus on one character because doing an ensemble film failed," says Kristen Kreuk, who stars as Chun-Li in the new film. "Having one character is easier — the audience relates to one character, and then it can accept other characters. It's easier to relate."

Even though "Street Fighter" was universally panned by critics, the movie did turn a profit and has gone on to achieve cult status with some fans. Doing another "Street Fighter" movie was a no-brainer on Capcom's part. With the latest entry in the game series, "Street Fighter IV," hitting home consoles this month, the timing couldn't be better.

"Honestly, I really think it's a marketing thing," says Kreuk. "There's a built-in audience. But realistically, if you are trying to sell a film (to video-game fans), you have a huge audience already."

Game designer David Jaffe, best known for creating the popular Sony video game "God of War," agrees. "Hollywood wants to hedge its bets," he says. "There's a built-in audience for these movies — look how well 'Max Payne' did."

"Max Payne," starring Mark Wahlberg and based on the action game of the same name, received poor reviews when it was released last year in North America. The game's makers were also disappointed with the finished film — producer Scott Miller said the movie's incoherent story line had him shaking his head.

Still, "Max Payne" took the box office's No. 1 spot during its opening weekend and ended up turning a profit of around $50 million.

If game movies aren't very good, why do gamers continue to see them?

"It's (the same as) with sports," explains Jaffe. "If you're a sports fan and the home team is losing, you'll see the game in the hope your team will turn it around."

The game-movie trend doesn't look to end in the near future. "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner is attached to a "God of War" movie. "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski is working on underwater dystopia tale "BioShock." "Underworld" director Len Wiseman is helming a movie version of tactical shooter "Gears of War." Capcom is readying another of its games, frozen-tundra action game "Lost Planet," for a motion-picture adaptation.

Due later this year is "Tekken," based on the popular Namco fighting game and starring "Kill Bill" actress Chiaki Kuriyama.

Video games themselves are moving closer to films — or interactive films, at least. Games have surpassed DVDs in sales, and graphics continue to venture into the territory of Uncanny Valley, a theory that says humans are repulsed by overly realistic visual representations of their own species. Last year's stealth title "Metal Gear Solid 4," from Japanese developer Kojima Productions, featured exceptionally long cinematic cut scenes, which players watched instead of played. And yes, a Hollywood version of "Metal Gear Solid" is in the works.

"Movie producers are always searching for great source material, and many video games now qualify as such the way comics, novels, plays and short stories did before them," says Mark Rein, vice president of Epic Games, the developer behind "Gears of War."

"Important producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, Peter Jackson and Thomas Tull are taking them seriously and treating them with importance. If you treat your material with importance then filmgoers will take it seriously. Did you ever think a theme-park ride would make a great movie? Jerry Bruckheimer did, and he made three awesome movies based on it (the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' series); now he's working with 'Prince of Persia.' Peter Jackson created three movies based on a taking a classic fantasy novel seriously and won a Best Picture Oscar; now he's working with 'Halo.' Thomas Tull reinvented Batman and Superman and now has one of the biggest movies ever with 'The Dark Knight,' and now he's working with 'Gears of War' and 'World of Warcraft.' So yes, I see good to reasons to be very optimistic about the film versions of these and other games."

If the quality of movies already released is any indication, turning video games into movies is no easy feat.

"Video games are more an experience than books; gamers feel a much deeper connection and ownership to a game they play than someone, for instance, who reads a book," says Brian Crecente, managing editor of game blog Kotaku.com. "When a movie is created based on a video game, it's very hard to match the expectation that a gamer might have of 'their' experience."

To fill in the gaps — gaps often intentionally created by the developers for players to fill in, says Jaffe — Hollywood often must add story-telling elements to flesh out the project.

"Comic books are much easier to adapt into movies because they are traditional story telling," says Jaffe, the movie version of whose game "God of War" has been years in development. "Games are harder to adapt because at their very core, they're games."

Even though Hollywood is going gaga for games, that doesn't mean good games are prime fodder for good films. According to Kreuk, "It's more important who's writing the film, who's directing it, and who's starring in it."

Brian Ashcraft is a journalist with video games blog Kotaku.com


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