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Film: Movie-making: it's no game

Hollywood's had a disastrous run with console heroes. Will Lara Croft ever make the big screen?
Although they don't actually exist, Duke Nukem and Cutter Slade are the movie stars of the future. If you can believe the hype, that is. George Romero has been signed to direct a big-screen version of the arcade hit Resident Evil. Or maybe the whole thing has collapsed. Liz Hurley is about to play Lara Croft. Or perhaps she isn't. Maybe nobody was ever that serious about the idea of turning video games into cinema blockbusters...

It's received wisdom that films are becoming more like video games. If you've seen Keanu do his VR karate in The Matrix, or Wesley Snipes kick vampire butt in Blade, you'll know that the nimble, bloody aesthetic of the arcade shoot-em-up is being busily absorbed by film-makers who are randy for the cash of joystick-twitching kids.

But software publishers are returning the compliment. "Cinematic" is just about the highest superlative in the world of computer gaming, and the companies who produce these entertainments swoon at the thought of a Hollywood studio expressing an interest in their work.

The news that Steven Spielberg had been spotted at E3 - the planet's largest thumb-candy trade fair - circulated through arcade circles in an instant, and software publishers can't wait to blab that this or that studio has been sniffing around their product. Big-screen adaptations of console favourites such as Resident Evil, Doom, Duke Nukem, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy are all, apparently, on their way. And this month's most exciting news is that Ben Affleck's production company has made noises about acquiring the rights for a movie version of the new Belgian sci- fi game Outcast.

For games companies, a big-screen adaptation is a way of achieving legitimacy. "The video game industry has grown very quickly, and it's been a boom- bust business," observes Neil West, editor of Arcade magazine. "You only have to look at the rise and fall of Sega. They were king of the hill five years ago with Sonic the Hedgehog. They had big swanky offices in the middle of London. And now they're nowhere to be seen. And despite the fact that video games take more money than movies or pre-recorded CDs, software publishers and developers will grab whatever chance they can to get a bit of real-world glamour. It helps to shake off the geeky image. So if a Hollywood studio rings up and asks if they can make a movie based on their video game character, that's as good as it gets."

There's a big snag, however. Most attempts to transfer a game title from the arcade to the multiplex have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Bob Hoskins and Roland Joffe don't count Super Mario Brothers as the pinnacle of their respective careers. Streetfighter was a disaster that brought Raul Julia's CV to an ignominious end. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was so dreadful that its distribution company refused to screen it to British film critics. And Wing Commander will crash straight to video in the UK at the end of this month.

The combined weight of these turkeys has retarded the progress of the many video game-based movies currently in development. Two years ago, the British software company Eidos declared that Tomb Raider's Lara Croft was going to be a movie star. In June 1997, I spoke to some of the people who were planning to make a mint from Lara's cross-media exploitation. Eidos man Nick Thorp - formerly of the 1980s pop band Curiosity Killed the Cat - told me (from the side of Dave Stewart's swimming pool in the south of France) how the unknown actress Rhona Mitra was going to step into Lara's desert boots. Mitra even got herself a show on Channel 5 on the strength of her association with this wispy project.

Today, however, little concrete progress has been made. Paramount had the scriptwriter of the film Mortal Kombat knock off a screenplay. Then the studio assigned Stephen Herek - director of the live-action 101 Dalmatians - to the project, pairing him with screenwriter Steven De Souza, the man responsible for the disastrous Streetfighter film. Although the Tomb Raider movie is supposed to be on our screens next summer, no actress has yet been cast in the lead role. Names such as Liz Hurley and the topless model Anna Nicole Smith have been bandied about, but there has been no official announcement. As for the "real" Lara Croft, she's selling Lucozade on billboard advertisements.

Are all of these cross-media projects doomed to failure? When Harmony Korine went on The David Letterman Show to promote his movie Gummo, he announced his ambition to write "the Great American choose-your-own-adventure novel". Extracting a great film from a video game might be a similarly absurd cause. Turn Tomb Raider into a live-action movie and remove its all-important element of interactivity, and you're left with Raiders of the Lost Ark. And as Stephen Spielberg made that in 1981, there's surely little point in Stephen Herek doing it all over again 20 years later.

This auto-cannibalism has also caused problems for a movie based on the trigger-happy arcade game Resident Evil. The game - in which you are a Swat team member deadheading zombies in smalltown America, owes much to George Romero's classic exploitation film Night of the Living Dead. As a kind of nod to that fact, the Tokyo-based company that developed Resident Evil hired Romero to make a million-dollar trailer for the game, which has only ever been broadcast on Japanese television.

When a movie was mooted, Romero accepted the invitation to make it. Surprising, you might think, for a director to agree to oversee a movie adapted from a rip-off his own work. Alan Bryce, editor of the horror magazine The Dark Side, is sensitive to this irony. "As Resident Evil is, in effect, the game of Night of the Living Dead, making a film of it seems a fairly pointless exercise. And as the computer game audience is made up of young people, the companies which produce them are going to want a movie that gets a 12 or a 15 certificate. They won't want someone like Romero to make a really horrific, scary, terrifying film that can only be shown to people over 18 and would run into censorship problems in some countries. I'd bet that the film of Resident Evil will never get made."

Sure enough, the project appears now to have collapsed. This week, Romero's agent David Gersh confirmed that his client was no longer involved, and that Romero was off in Canada shooting a script of his own, (called Bruise). Resident Evil the movie has suddenly evaporated from lists of films in development.

Bryce believes that these stories reflect Hollywood's desperation for some kind of new source material. "I think these things get optioned and then somewhere along the line, someone comes to their senses, looks at the disastrous track record of films based on computer games, and says, well, maybe this isn't such a good idea."

However, this hasn't stopped software publishers striving to give their products the look and feel of the big screen. Outcast certainly has ambitions in this direction. It boasts a grand orchestral score, courtesy of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. It even has helicopter-shot credits. And its hero, Cutter Slade, is clearly modelled on the actor Christian Slater - but with a wider range of facial expressions.

The game's pleasures, however, have little to do with these aspirations. In the person of Slade, you wander round exotic market places and paddy fields, talking to bipedal ant-eaters wearing Brother Cadfael gear, trying to figure out what you're meant to be doing. Gradually, the information builds up in a highly satisfying way. And it takes hours and hours to come to these conclusions. If this were the cinema, everyone would either have fallen asleep or gone home and plugged in their PlayStation.