by Mitchell Bonds
Hollywood has a problem with video-game-to-movie adaptations.
In early May I watched the animated feature “Ratchet and Clank,” based on a video game series of the same name by Insomniac games. It got pummeled by critics and the box office — to the point where Insomniac might not break even on production costs — and I think that’s a shame.
The film deserves some of its lumps due to poor execution, the worst of it is because it’s a Herculean task to make a good game-to-movie adaptation. Much like book-to-film adaptations, they lose a lot in the transition. The more you liked the original, the more you’re likely to face disappointment.
One for the fans
Tell me if this sounds familiar: A pint-sized nobody from a boring job on the backside of planet nowhere dreams of joining the Galactic Rangers, but fails until an unlikely sidekick joins him to fight a planet-destroying megalomaniac. Along the way they learn to do the right thing for the right reasons, and learn the value of friendship and teamwork.
Ugh. Generic city, population: Me.
I was introduced to the goofy run-and-gunny-rooty-tooty-point-and-shooty comedy platformer “Ratchet and Clank” by one of my best friends nearly 14 years ago. The two of us played the heck out of it together, staying up way past when his parents said we should be asleep. We’d hang a blanket near the bottom of the staircase to block the light from the TV so we wouldn’t get in trouble as we combed the desert level at 2 a.m. for the elusive Platinum Bolts.
It was even better once a sequel added multiplayer duels. He may have been the one who owned the system and the games, but if I ever picked up the Lava Cannon (which shot a stream of gold-orange lava at its target and we affectionately named “the Pisser”) during a match, he was literally and metaphorically toast.
We’ve both followed and played every game in the franchise, occasionally comparing notes. So I really, REALLY wanted to like this movie.
Failure to acquire target audience
To a longtime fan, this movie is mediocre. The game’s writers occasionally shine through with the snappy dialogue for which the franchise is known, and the over-the-top heroes and villains feel comfortably familiar. And, unlike some other ‘family features,’ it doesn’t feature butt and fart and boobies-on-guys jokes, so it’s pretty clean.
When I saw the movie, the theater was nearly vacant. Maybe the poor reviews turned others off, but I can’t have been alone in seeing this. Kids who were old enough to play “Ratchet and Clank” when it first came out are now old enough to have kids old enough to bring to this movie.
My friend who loves the series couldn’t join me because he was running a 104 degree fever, but his sister who’s only a few years older than him has a son who’s about as old as we were when WE first got into the series.
So where were the theatergoers? I suspect they stayed home, knowing the biggest downside to movies based on video games has always been how far they stray from their source material. Making the transition from 6-10 hours of gameplay to 1.5 hours of screen time is hard, harder still when trying to keep the elements that interested fans in the first place.
In “Ratchet and Clank,” The plot is a watered-down and condensed version of plot points from three of the games, and pretends the plot holes created by doing that don’t exist.
As for shoutouts to the game’s fans, the film shows off many, MANY of the franchise’s iconic weapons and gizmos — and adds a few well-placed lines of dialogue that explain how and why some of the game’s mechanics make it into the film, such as the menus from the game being an interface in Ratchet’s armor — but none of them get enough screen time to really emphasize how fun they were.
Case in point: The RYNO, the fan-favorite “Rip You a New One” ultimate weapon, gets a dramatic introduction but never even gets properly fired. In the games, I loved the RYNO in all its various incarnations, from the behemoth pepperbox that rapid-fired missiles, to the satellite laser platform to my personal favorite: The RYNO V, the machinegun-shotgun-bazooka that played “The 1812 Overture” while spraying the whole map with hot death in a variety of exciting flavors. I was disappointed by its brief and impotent introduction.
This fanboy complains: A few things were missing that could have been chuckleworthy. It would have been nice to lampshade how “bolts,” the galactic economy’s coin of the realm, are literally threaded construction nuts and bolts. Some of the other fun toys like the grind-rail boots and helicopter pack might have been a nice change from the constant use of his “Swingshot” magnetic grappling hook from the game.
Indeed, any number of tiny additions and nods would have been well and good but still wouldn’t have solved the real problem: The story.
Think of the children
Children aren’t idiots. I say this having been a 5-year-old who managed to get pizza in his hair on a regular basis, but really, kids these days are pretty savvy. They pay attention, they notice things adults don’t, and they’re capable of following a more complex plot than most give them credit for. Introduce a more complex reason to despise a villain other than “he’s a funny color, talks with an accent and looks weird,” and they’ll probably comprehend it (giving kids an advantage over the average “Call of Duty” player).
In Ratchet’s case, the villain is destroying entire planets with a Death-Star-esque space station called The Deplanetizer (strong) but the movie goes out of its way to explain they’re uninhabited planets (weak) except now he’s targeting a galactic capital planet with millions of inhabitants (strong) so they evacuate first (weak).
In the game, Chairman Drek and his corporation murder millions and destroy a half-dozen planetary ecosystems for profit: he is a villain most foul. In the movie… I don’t know, he’s making too many asteroid fields? Softening the evil of a villain can be done correctly (see the continuing story of Gul Dukat in Star Trek), but having him pull his punches because it’s a kids movie is the wrong way to go about it. Kids can understand a remorseless, greedy monster as a villain if you give them the opportunity.
But therein lies the problem. If a movie panders to fans of a game, it needs to contain more of what makes the game good. If it’s just a kids movie and needs to not be too dark, do that. But don’t split the difference. It’s why the “Resident Evil” zombie franchise has done fairly well for itself, while the 1993 “Super Mario Bros” tanked horribly.
It brings to mind a quote by “Parks and Recreation” character Ron Swanson: “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”
Mitchell Bonds edits for a local newspaper as his day job, and elsewise spends too much time playing video games and writing about dragons. Beware of contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.