There’s an old proverb that advises, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” If that holds true, then the dawn of the video game movie renaissance must be right around the corner in the wake of Hitman: Agent 47‘s release. The latest big screen adaptation of IO Interactive’s long-running stealth video game franchise comes just eight years after the last big screen adaptation, with Rupert Friend (Homeland) taking over the role of the eponymous genetically-engineered assassin, who was previously played by Timothy Olyphant.
Agent 47 is the product of a secret government program designed to create perfect killing machines, and despite being completely bald and having a barcode tattooed on the back of his neck, he’s also a master of disguise. In his latest movie outing, Agent 47 is searching for Katia (Hannah Ware), the daughter of the scientist who originally devised the Agent program. In the villain corner is the mysterious John Smith (Zachary Quinto) and the Syndicate Organization.
Far from being the successful reboot/franchise starter that 20th Century Fox was no doubt hoping for, Hitman: Agent 47 has been absolutely shredded in reviews, with a current score of 29% on Metacritic and 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. The jury is still out on the box office results, since it scraped a meager $8.2 million during its domestic opening weekend, but may find enough popularity overseas to break even. Altogether, it’s definitely not the runaway hit that many video game fans have been patiently waiting for.
The trend of disappointments when it comes to movies based on video games certainly isn’t for lack of trying from Hollywood. Market research and analytics firm Newzoo has predicted that the global gaming market will reach $91.5 billion in 2015, and to film studios that translates as a whole lot of people with disposable income who are interested in video game properties. Yet it’s the comparatively humble comic book industry that’s currently got an iron grip on blockbuster movies and, to a growing extent, TV shows.
It’s no doubt the massive financial value attached to the video game industry that keeps Hollywood producers’ faith alive, in the hope of creating a video game movie franchise that’s as critically and financially successful as Marvel Studios’ shared comic book universe has been. It seems as though studios are continually searching for the silver bullet that will get right what all the previous video game movies have gotten wrong – and there’s a lot that’s gone wrong.
The highest-grossing video game movie to date was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which grossed over $336 million worldwide and was still a box office flop due to its massive budget. 2001 release Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was relatively successful, but received poor reviews. The Resident Evil franchise has also enjoyed enough success to become a small but profitable franchise, despite being despised by critics beyond the first movie. Arguably the best video game adaptations to date are Christophe Gans’ visually impressive Silent Hill, which received an absolutely dire sequel in 2012, and last year’s Fast and Furious-lite racing movie Need for Speed, which boasted a charismatic cast and some great practical stunts.
Speaking to Screen Rant at San Diego Comic-Con this year, Moon director Duncan Jones voiced the opinion that all it will take is for one video game movie to strike gold, and then the floodgates will open. Jones is currently wrapping up post-production on Warcraft, a massive, CGI-heavy fantasy epic based on the hugely popular World of Warcraft gaming franchise. Considering its budget and how heavily Legendary Pictures has been pushing Warcraft at Comic-Con the last two years, it seems that this title – like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time before it – will be the big-budget investment that could make or break Hollywood’s confidence in video game movies.
Hitman: Agent 47, with its comparatively small budget and R rating, isn’t actually that much of a setback for the genre. As with Need for Speed, no one was particularly expecting this action shoot-’em-up to stun the world with its compelling story, rich characterization and skillful world-building. Warcraft, along with Ubisoft Motion Pictures’ upcoming first feature Assassin’s Creed, is a different story. These are the movies that we’re watching with interest to see if they’ll kickstart a new age of video game influence in Hollywood and help pry some of their compatriots out of development hell.
One of the key challenges is that, for the most part, video games are not well-written and in many cases don’t have a story. Games are primarily marketed based on their visuals and interactive gameplay, with writing far from the top of the list of priorities, whereas in the film industry a successful movie idea generally starts with a great script or story pitch. A video game can have horrible writing and still receive excellent reviews based on the strength of its other elements, which has led to an environment where reviewers tend to have a much lower standard for writing in video games than they would for a movie or TV show. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, for example, has been widely lauded as a pinnacle of video game writing, despite the fact that it’s about on par with an average episode of The Walking Dead.
The Last of Us is, along with Assassin’s Creed, one of the few video game-based movies in development where the original story feels strong enough to survive the transition from an interactive screen to a non-interactive one. Hitman: Agent 47, by contrast, never stood much of a chance. The appeal of the games lies in sneaking around buildings, strategically avoiding civilians and guards, and dressing Agent 47 up in various disguises in order to get him close to his target without raising the alarm. The actual story is generic action thriller nonsense, there to provide justification for the missions and move Agent 47 to interesting new places around the world.
At this point it seems as though no amount of failure is going to discourage Hollywood from trying to tap the video game industry’s gold vein, but if Warcraft and titles like Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted – which are being produced by the same companies that published their video game counterparts – fail in a similar way, the effect could prove to be very disheartening. After all, if Michael Fassbender and a critically praised director like Justin Kurzel can’t make a historical sci-fi action movie about people reliving the memories of their ancestors work, what hope is there for anyone else?
As for Hitman: Agent 47, it looks like this movie will at least have good company in the bargain bin of schlocky video game movies, and might even find enough of an audience overseas and on home release to prevent 20th Century Fox from losing money. And if you didn’t like it, don’t worry; there’ll probably be another reboot in eight years.
Hitman: Agent 47 is in theaters now.