I’ve written before about how vividly Hollywood must be able to just taste that videogame movie money, if only they could tap into it. 2019 has proven that some studios have at least begun to fall into a pattern of reliable profitability. But if the success of Jumanji: The Next Level and its precursor are anything to go on, they’re more likely to succeed when they adopt videogame logic and conventions, but leave behind the baggage of an actual videogame plot.
The latest Jumanji film follows the soft reboot from 2017 with a movie that brings almost nothing whatsoever new to the table. It’s a shame, as the 2017 film showed a knowing spark when it came to some videogame tropes: An understanding of how daunting it would be to have one’s actual survival rely on their ability to survive a “Nintendo-hard” game with just three lives.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle actually made some good emotional choices in its story, and paired with the central conceit—that the regular teen characters are being represented in-game by avatars starring Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and the freaking Rock—it added up to a fun and fairly smart action feature. The sequel returns to the world and adds a few changes of scenery and other amusing avatars (including Awkwafina, channeling at different points one of the dweeby teenagers and Danny DeVito), but it unfortunately doesn’t add anything new to the premise.
It does add some changes of scenery and Rory McCann (Game of Thrones’ Hound) as a big bad, but even he gets barely any screentime and absolutely zero development. This is a particular letdown precisely because videogame series, maybe more so than any other medium, often markedly improve as they crank out sequels. The stories get more detailed, the technology becomes more refined, and developers are better able to make their wild ideas work. While the movie was by no means bad and at times quite amusing, there’s just none of that “more is more” feeling to Jumanji: The Next Level.
Whether or not the sequel, already hinted at in a credits sequence, will be bolder, is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that this generally well-reviewed movie which has already more than made back its budget will be considered a success and almost certainly assure that sequel gets made.
For all that, though, Jumanji: The Next Level isn’t actually adapting a videogame. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and last year’s very well-received Ralph Breaks the Internet, it’s a movie deeply informed by videogames but not based on any particular game. Yet, finally, the last year has provided at least a couple of well-reviewed and enthusiastically received adaptations, though one in the form of a series rather than a movie: Detective Pikachu turned a profit and won many viewers’ hearts, and Netflix’s second season of Castlevania ended in a fiery, bloodsoaked frenzy of high drama and supersonic vampire fistfights, to the delight of series fans.
Both made their own distinct choices in how to portray the creatures, lore and characters of their storied franchises while still proudly foregrounding their respective series’ aesthetics. Detective Pikachu came up with bemusing, Flintstones-like societal functions for its monsters while making damn sure they were recognizable versions of the creatures millennials have been capturing and trading on their Game Boys for decades. Castlevania layered on a juicy plot while taking great care to build everything up to a deeply satisfying payoff engineered to show off classic visuals and music from the games (and make me gay for Alucard).
The other thing they both have in common is a commitment to character- and emotion-focused story. In the case of Castlevania in particular, writers made clear and coherent character choices for their principal protagonists and every villain large and small throughout. I wrote earlier that one of the central difficulties of adapting a specific game series is that the emotional center of most games stems from the visceral feeling of actually playing them. It’s functionally impossible to make a Castlevania show or movie that feels like the tense platforming action of the game series, and yet the series is somehow the adaptation to beat.
Doom: Annihilation certainly wasn’t. There are two notable things about it: No demons show up until about 40 minutes in, and it ends right when we’re assured that the demon-slaying is about to begin. Normally I wouldn’t even dignify it with a mention, but it feels especially egregious considering Doom, the series, returned after a long time in the wilderness with an installment that kicked gamers’ teeth in, in the best kind of way. With another game in the series on the horizon, people are ready for something better than the 30th or 40th low-rent knockoff of Aliens.
Obviously no article about the state of videogame movies in 2019 would be complete without a mention of the most high-profile movie that we ended up not getting this year: Sonic the Hedgehog. Originally slated for a November release this year, the entire world recoiled in horror at the trailer revealing the title character. Universal ridicule is apparently what it took to put Paramount Pictures into panic mode. Now slated for a Valentine’s Day 2020 release, the character’s total overhaul has brought him more in line with how he’s looked in games since at least Sonic Adventure. What hasn’t changed is the story, which is filled with alarming red flags. The Sonic mythos is already one of the most incoherent things in the history of all fiction, and dragging it into a contemporary story with human characters just seems like asking for a disaster.
Better looking is Free Guy, which seems as if it’ll play around with the conventions and frustrations of multiplayer games from the perspective of one of the much-put-upon nonplayer characters whose job it is to move along the plot and eat players’ shit day in and day out. That actually seems like it might have something to say about the phenomenon that is gaming.
What it won’t be, though, is an adaptation of an actual videogame title. That’s still largely out of reach.
Kenneth Lowe will rip and tear until it is done. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.