Making compelling videogame adaptations is something one would think would be rather low-hanging fruit for movie studios—robustly built worlds and storylines with a pre-existing fan base and often pre-loaded cinematic sequences—yet Hollywood hasn’t managed to really make a great one. Maybe it actually comes from the fact that the games being chosen to adapt are in fact not the best kind of games to adapt into films? Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider are each a great game franchise with a good core story, but Hollywood somehow ruins it. Granted, some videogames such as Mortal Kombat, Postal, Doom and DOA: Dead or Alive might not make for the best source material from which to form compelling content. But judging from some of the actors found in these films, you can’t always fault the casting. Let’s take a look at the Oscar-winning actors who, through their very presence, have done their best to elevate videogame movies into consumption-worthy content. (Let us also have a moment of silence as we contemplate how they failed.)
1. Donald Sutherland as Dr. Sid, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
Based off of the Final Fantasy franchise, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is one of the most notable videogame adaptations of all time with Roger Ebert calling it a “technical milestone.” A fully CGI-animated film, it remains one of the most expensive videogame adaptations of all time, costing $137 million. Donald Sutherland voices Dr. Sid who works to free the post-apocalyptic world from an invasive alien species called Phantoms.
Sutherland is a screen legend and icon racking up over 180 screen credits since the 1960s. He’s appeared in huge box-office successes like The Italian Job, A Time to Kill and Horrible Bosses. He’s starred in Oscar-winning films like Ordinary People and Cold Mountain. He’s shown his range by starring in huge franchise projects like The Hunger Games and niche ones like Pride and Prejudice, Reign Over Me and JFK. Sutherland surprisingly never actually received an Oscar or even a nomination for acting—a crime when looking at his body of work—but just this year, he was awarded an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to cinema.
2. Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)
Established as an Oscar-winning actress by the age of 24, the role of the, at the time, “robustly pixelated” Lara Croft required an already buxom Jolie to wear a padded bra to achieve the character’s desired look (and I suppose provide an incentive for nerdy males to see an action film starring a heroine rather than a big muscled hero?). Jolie at least brought some depth and talent to the role in an otherwise bleak and senseless film adaptation of a videogame.
Besides the negative reviews and pointless sexualization, Jolie’s Tomb Raider experience helped pave the way for her humanitarian work. After the TIFF premiere of her 2017 film First They Killed My Father, Jolie said, “I first went to Cambodia about 16 years ago for a film, Tomb Raider—that was the first film back after the war. I felt very ignorant because I knew nothing about the [Khmer Rouge] war. I went to the country thinking I was going to meet a very angry, very broken people,” she continued. “I was so taken by how resilient and proud and beautiful the people were, the country was.” In 2001, just a month after the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Jolie was named a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
Getting back to Jolie’s acting talent, she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her impressive, vulnerable performance as a sociopathic institutionalized patient in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted. Her range also includes another Oscar nomination for the 2008 Clint Eastwood film, Changeling.
3. Jon Voigt as Lord Richard Croft in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
As Lara Croft’s deceased father, Jon Voight only shares one scene with Jolie, his real-life daughter. The scene is a weird attempt at trying to find emotion in a rather detached film, though given how rocky their actual father-daughter relationship has been, perhaps that’s fitting? And while, in the original videogame timelines, Lord Croft’s character changes throughout, making a bit of a mess with the early games’ continuity, Voight’s acting chops are well-established: He won the 1979 Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the paraplegic Vietnam War veteran Luke Martin in Coming Home. He began turning heads with his first Oscar nomination in 1970 Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy opposite future Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman. He received another Oscar nomination for his work in the 1985 film Runaway Train and then again in the 2001 film Ali with Will Smith. He’s given some of the most recognizable performances ranging from The Champ to Holes.
4. Ben Kingsley as Kagan, King of Vampires in BloodRayne (2005) and as Nizam in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
has a résumé that nears Meryl Streep’s in range, so it’s unclear why exactly an Oscar-winning actor with a knighthood awarded by the Queen of England would star in the videogame adaptation of BloodRayne, especially when the adaptation is so loosely based on the game itself. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus? “An absurd sword-and-sorcery vid-game adaptation from schlock-maestro Uwe Boll, featuring a distinguished (and slumming) cast.” In the film, Kingsley plays the antagonist, Kagan, King of Vampires.
The 2005 catastrophe of a videogame adaptation finds Kingsley coming off his fourth Oscar nomination for his gut-wrenching performance in the devastating The House of Sand and Fog. Sir Kingsley won an Oscar for his breakthrough performance in the 1982 film Gandhi. Before his Oscar-winning performance and launch into stardom, Kingsley had an impressive tenure on the stage, which includes London’s West End and Broadway. He even starred in a production of Death of a Salesman with a young Mel Gibson in Sydney, Australia. The veteran actor also received Oscar nominations in between Gandhi and The House of Sand and Fog for 1991’s Bugsy with Warren Beatty and 2001’s Sexy Beast with Ray Winstone.
But Kingsley wasn’t done appearing in regrettable adaptations. In 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Walt Disney Pictures’ 99% loosely based whitewashed adaption of The Sands of Time videogame franchise, Kingsley plays the uncle of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Persian prince. (Kingsley is half Indian, unlike the mostly full-on Caucasian rest of the cast, so that’s something, I guess?) Disney’s 2010 film came out just a year before Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning Hugo, which helped return Kingsley back into the spotlight.
5. J.K. Simmons as Candidate Wells, Postal (2007)
We salute Simmons for not existing in any easily discoverable screen shots on the internet.
Some think of the Postal videogame series as the most violent and abhorrent game of all time, thus raising the question: why adapt it in the first place? No major studios were even attracted to the idea of adapting this game into a movie. The film, completely deplorable, pokes fun at 9/11 and terrorism and tries to create a political satire but according to Rotten Tomatoes ultimately “lacks any wit or relevance.”
J.K. Simmons was one of those actors that many had heard of and seen but couldn’t quite put a name to. That was before he won his Academy Award for playing an intensely demanding music school conductor who bullies his students in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Simmons has over 180 film and television credits but is probably most known for playing J. Jonah Jameson in the original Spider-Man trilogy with Tobey Maguire. He costarred in Juno, Jennifer’s Body, The Cider House Rules and many more others, and lent his recognizable and commanding voice talent to shows like The Legend of Korra and Justice League Unlimited. He also starred in the hit TNT show The Closer opposite Kyra Sedgwick and appeared in numerous Law & Order episodes. Since Postal, Simmons’ career has only gone up. So maybe that’s a note to future Oscar winners: star in a God-awful videogame adaptation and maybe you’ll win an Oscar or be given an honorary one like Sutherland. (It’s not too late for Oscar to come calling, Michelle Rodriguez.)
6. Marion Cotillard as Dr. Sophia Rikkin, Assassin’s Creed (2016)
How did Marion Cotillard end up starring in the adaptation of Assassin’s Creed? Maybe it had something to do with the film also landing Michael Fassbender? Or perhaps she’s real fond of director Justin Kurzel, with whom she worked on Macbeth. Or maybe she just never played the game series and thought the basic idea sounded awesome. At first glance it does appear to be promising, but it appears that once a script is re-written over and over again during several years of development, it begins to fall apart.
Cotillard plays Dr. Sophia Rikkin, who doesn’t even appear in the first couple of games. She’s ironically not actually seen at all but is mentioned in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which was released after the 2016 film. Cotillard is one of the most internationally famous and well-regarded actresses of the century. Having acted in her native France for many years, her American break came in the 2003 Tim Burton film Big Fish, but it wasn’t until her Oscar win for 2007’s La Vie En Rose where she played French singer Edith Piaf that she truly came into her own in the States. Since then, she’s appeared in several Christopher Nolan films, including Inception and The Dark Knight Rises as well as in other critical favorites like Midnight in Paris and Rust and Bone. She received another Oscar nomination for the 2014 film Two Days One Night where she played a woman suffering from depression and on the brink of losing her job. But when it comes to Oscar winners in Assassin’s Creed, Cotillard wasn’t alone.
7. Jeremy Irons as Alan Rikkin, Assassin’s Creed (2016)
Alan Rikkin is the father to Marion Cotillard’s Sophia Rikkin and though it might surprise some that Cotillard was in the film, it shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Jeremy Irons, who belongs squarely in the Michael Caine school of “amazing actors who also occasionally appear in dreck.” Irons has had an incredible acting career. Like all great British actors, he began his career on the stage, appearing in several productions on London’s West End before moving to Broadway where he won a Tony Award for his debut performance for the 1984 play The Real Thing. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune, where he played European aristocrat and accused murderer, Claus von Bülow. Surprisingly, it’s his only Oscar nomination, but the man has also won an Emmy for his performance in the limited series Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren. He’s just one Grammy away from becoming the next EGOT recipient. Maybe he’ll grace us with a spoken word piece and snag a Grammy?
8. Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2018)
The list comes to an end with another Lara Croft reboot and another Oscar winner stepping up to bat. The most recent Tomb Raider adaptation focuses on Croft’s origin story and is somewhat based on the 2013 videogame reboot. In keeping with that, Alicia Vikander’s Croft is not the hyper-sexualized version found in the earlier games (and brought to life by Jolie). She’s become more of a female Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series: an adventurer and explorer with charm and spunk rather than a sex symbol.
Vikander won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the 2015 film The Danish Girl. She came into the American/Hollywood eye with Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley. She had her breakout year with the release of Seventh Son, Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Danish Girl all being released within a year. Even though Tomb Raider has received less-than-stellar reviews, Vikanker’s own performance has been praised (or at least unpanned), and the film is the highest critically rated live action videogame adaptation on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe there is hope for the future of videogame adaptations? Please Shawn Levy, don’t screw up Uncharted.