About 4,600 years ago, the Mesopotamians spent their downtime playing what we now call “The Royal Game of Ur” — basically, the ancient antecedent to backgammon. Cut to today, and I’m sure somewhere in Hollywood there’s a movie script lying around that’s turned Ur’s little dotted playing discs into wisecracking animated characters who go on a madcap adventure. It’s all the rage!
But littered along the shoulders of cinema’s highways are the stinking, rotten corpses of so many fallen Angry Birds before them. Bloated, unintelligible monstrosities like Battleship and Doom and Sonic the Hedgehog‘s original teeth dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Making a movie out of a board or video game is a game of chance, one which has to date had most filmmakers landing a set of snake eyes. A few extraordinary souls have braved the mist (but funnily enough, not yet the Myst) and come out the other side not just unscathed, but absolute Dungeon Masters. Today we crown them kings!
Here are the best movies based on games, and where you can watch them right now.
Previous generations might joyfully recall spending untold hours of after-school afternoons playing a game in which little colored blocks snapped into place beside each other. Nostalgia for a plotless game may not seem enough, but incredibly, in 2023 they somehow managed to turn that 8-bit memory into a truly entertaining movie.
Rather than giving personalities to the blocks themselves (no Patrick Stewart voicing a poop emoji here, thank goodness) Jon S. Baird’s movie tells the wild true story of the game’s origin. A zanily mustachioed Taron Egerton stars as the Dutch designer Henk Rogers, while Nikita Yefremov plays the game’s Russian inventor, Alexey Pajitnov. Against all odds, this unlikely team got the classic video game out from behind the Iron Curtain and into arcades, home consoles, and the groundbreaking wonder of the GameBoy.
This is the game movie by which all other game movies are judged. It helps that the board game Clue already plays like the simplest Agatha Christie-esque whodunnit. Mr. Boddy (I’ll never get over that name) turns up dead, and everyone assembled had a reason to have done the dastardly deed! That gave director Jonathan Lynn license to riff on all of those classic tales of disparate people trapped inside a single location with a murderer lurking among them. Only this time, it’s done via the already established broad character types that Hasbro’s version had itself swiped liberally from all of those precursors.
But when it comes down to it, it’s really Clue: The Movie‘s casting agents, Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, who deserve all the laurels. Putting comic geniuses Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, and Colleen Camp in the roles of Mustard and Plum and Scarlet and Peacock, et cetera, is what makes this movie endlessly rewatchable and infinitely quotable to this day. Flames on the sides of our face, indeed!
3. Ouija: Origin of Evil
The biggest surprise in Ouija: Origin of Evil, the 2016 prequel to the mediocre 2014 film Ouija, was when it turned out to actually be a good movie. It makes sense now in 2023, when the director’s name of Mr. Mike Flanagan means something to us, thanks to the steady stream of horror content (like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass) he’s spent the last several years unleashing onto Netflix. But in 2016 this movie hit as a shock — the best kind.
Set in the late 1960s, this is an old-fashioned tale of two sisters, one of whom asks the board to connect with their dead father and the other one who gets possessed by an evil spirit in the process. Flanagan manages to suss out big wallops of the oogie-boogies from the little wooden board and its recognizable planchette, which has haunted every sleepover for the past 130 years. (Ouija Boards as we know them date all the way back to 1890, if you can believe it!)
4. Werewolves Within
Josh Ruben’s 2021 adaptation of the 2016 Ubisoft game makes the case, like Clue did before it, that the secret to making a great video game adaption lay in the simplicity of the source material itself. Werewolves Within’s game was based on party games like Werewolves and Mafia that had been around for ages — a group of people trying to figure out who among them is the werewolf killing the non-werewolves one by one.
Ruben’s movie plunks us down in the remote mountain village of Beaverfield on the eve of a snowstorm alongside a newcomer, forest ranger Finn Wheeler (the winning Sam Richardson), who’s introduced to the townspeople one by one. A useful structure for the procedural to come! And a super fun script from Mishna Wolff complicates the basic concept by giving its cast of characters plenty of side motives for killing that have absolutely nothing to do with lycanthropy. Like Clue before it, the bones were solid and simple. And the fun ended up coming thanks to the killer cast of snowed-in Beaverfield residents who all end up with a little blood on their hands… when their hands aren’t ripped off altogether, that is.
5. Resident Evil
With seven films and one short-lived Netflix series, Resident Evil has unleashed plenty for fans to go rabid over. People are bound to have their individual favorite adaptations of Capcom’s nearly three-decade-old zombie survival video game. Mine remains Paul W.S. Anderson’s original 2002 film, which turned the supermodel Milla Jovovich into an action hero for the ages. (She’s up there with Sly and Arnold, if you ask me!)
This first film centers on Alice (Jovovich), an amnesiac who wakes up mightily confused and surrounded by the gibbering flesh-hungry undead. She finds herself wandering the halls of a decrepit mansion with all kinds of secrets locked inside (and down down down into its underground depths). All of this will eventually lead her to the big bad Umbrella Corporation and its many diabolical genetic deeds. Anderson’s film leaps from kick-ass action set-piece to kick-ass action set-piece, including an opening elevator sequence for the ages and a game of deadly laser tag that even Catherine Zeta-Jones in a catsuit wouldn’t be able to maneuver.
6. Silent Hill
Resident Evil is considered by many to be the scariest video game there is to play. However, the film adaptations have always leaned more into action-movie territory. So in 2006, French director Christophe Gans came along and turned Konami’s game of Silent Hill into the scariest of the video-game movies by leaps and terrifying pyramid-headed bounds.
The wildly under-appreciated Radha Mitchell stars as Rose, a mother whose daughter has gone missing and whaddya know might be lurking somewhere inside the abandoned mining town of Silent Hill.
Gans’ film is awash in surreal visions of hell’s denizens. And that’s before you even get to the dance-troupe of sexy demon nurses. To this day, every time the movie’s alarms start blaring, I sink a little lower in my seat, terrified at what fresh horrors are about to be unleashed. Bonus points, as ever, for Alice Krige realness.
Unlikely as it might seem, Darren Aronofsky’s surreal black-and-white breakout movie Pi — which is turning 25 this year and getting an 8K theatrical re-release thanks to A24 — is linked inextricably with the 2,500-year-old strategy game of Go.
The film’s main characters, Max (Sean Gullette) and Sol (Mark Margolis), are mathematicians who play the game periodically across the film, each of them using it to explain their separate visions of unity versus chaos in the universe. The film, like the game itself, is built to give you a headache. But 25 years on, there’s nothing else like it out there, and we definitely wouldn’t have the mind-bending movies of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless and Something in the Dirt) without it.
8. Mortal Kombat
There are plenty of longtime fans of Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 film adaptation of the infamously bloody fighting game. But I preferred director Simon McQuoid’s 2021 reboot of the franchise, and I don’t think it was just the fact that it was giving me two hours of loud distraction from a very stressful outside world. Not just that, anyway.
Flashing from 17th-century Japan to the modern day, this retelling gives us a legacy story about an MMA fighter (Lewis Tan) who has no idea he’s the heir to a fierce clan of ninjas (led by the always incredible Hiroyuki Sanada), but who finds out all about it and fast once the wicked Sub-Zero (Warrior star Joe Taslim) shows up and starts slicing off limbs willy-nilly.
The film is awash in gobbledegook ancient prophecies about Outworld destroying Earthrealm and the like, so it’s best to just turn your brain way down to (sub)zero and enjoy the spectacles of supersized gore-soaked battles between gorgeous actors like Tan, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin and Taslim. It’s got enough of those for 10 movies, or at least one-quarter of a John Wick. Bring on a sequel already, I say!
9. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
The adventurer Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) must find an ancient Illuminati key to unlock the Egyptian artifact called the Triangle of Light, which controls time, before a solar eclipse destroys us all, or… something. I have no idea, it’s utter nonsense. But I have always had a soft spot for both the 2001 and 2003 Lara Croft films, even if they are deeply, profoundly stupid movies. If there was ever an actress up to the challenge and then some of kicking ass in deeply, profoundly stupid action movies — and it wasn’t Milla Jovovich — it was Jolie.
She understood the assignment. And she punched the shark in the nose with the exact correct glimmer in her eye as she did it. And as much as these movies were made to be vehicles to stare at Jolie’s impossible Lara-esque proportions, I always appreciated that they spent time ogling her rough-boy suitors (played by no less than Daniel Craig in the first and Gerard Butler in the second) with some equal opportunity leering.
10. Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Only with the fourth D&D movie have they finally managed to get it right. Giving both diehard fans of the five-decades-old role-playing-game and newbies who wouldn’t know a gelatinous cube from an Owlbear the sort of otherworldly magic that the series become synonymous with, this big-budget adventure from comedy writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley is, to quote our critic, “one wild ride you won’t want to miss.”
Starring a twinkling Chris Pine in one corner as a charming thief and a devilish Hugh Grant in the other, more evil corner — with generous support from Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, and Sophia Lillis as shape-shifters and wizards and the like — Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves rolls the dodecahedron on adventure and comes up with verve!
How to watch: Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is now in theaters.
Honorable mention: The Last of Us
Being a TV show, HBO’s smash-hit The Last of Us doesn’t belong on a list of movies. But after one season, we’re ready to rank it among the best video game adaptations there are, thanks to plotting as addictive as the game it was based on and characters inhabited by actors as proficiently talented as Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.
Pascal plays Joel, who we watch barely survive a deadly fungal infection apocalypse that turns the infected into murderous mushroom-headed beasts. Cut to years later when it becomes Joel’s duty to transport the teen girl Ellie (Ramsey) across dangerous terrain, as she’s proven to be immune to the infection. It’s just a simple road-trip story with a burgeoning father-daughter bond as its big beating heart.
And creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann bring a seriousness and levity to the post-apocalyptic material that’s staged plenty of sadness and grief for us, yes, but so far managed to stay away from too much wallowing in it. (Which is to say, there’s hopefully no Negan type character in our future.)
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