Modding the Oscars

These video game movies never earned the award-recognition they deserved. Until now.

In 1993, The Washington Post unwittingly became tied to video game movie history. Emblazoned on the cover of the first video game movie’s poster is a review, attributed to The Washington Post: "IT’S A BLAST!

That movie was "Super Mario Bros." Laughed out of the box office at the time, the film still enchanted former Post staff writer Hal Hinson, who wrote those infamous words without irony in what would become a rare commodity: a positive review for a film based on a video game. 

So in honor of the Oscars this year, The Washington Post is doubling down on our love of no good, very bad (but sometimes fun) video game films. We’ll be bestowing our very own Academy Awards.

Here are the ground rules for nomination: 

* The Oscars, as Bong Joon-ho called them, are "local," so we’ll only be evaluating films produced out of Hollywood studios. Otherwise, the Phoenix Wright movie from Japan would sweep.

* Animated movies are OK, but only major theatrical releases. No direct-to-video or TV titles (sorry "Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children")

* The film must be adapted from an existing video game, so no documentaries (sorry "The King of Kong") or movies about games (bye "Tron" and "Wreck-It Ralph"). 

No loading screens or opening monologue for these awards. Let’s get straight to it.

Best Cinematography

The nominees

Silent Hill  |  Max Payne  |  Doom  |  Resident Evil Retribution  |  Assassin’s Creed

And the Oscar goes to ...

Doom

The "Doom" movie of 2005 was remarkable for two things. One, it still presents a very strong case to cast Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in more villain roles. And two, it’s that five-minute first-person shooting sequence. Video game movies aren’t known for their cinematography. But when Karl Urban’s perspective switched from outside to inside his head, the moment elevated the blatant "Alien" ripoff into something special. In theaters, it lifted a bored audience to cheer and scream, if only for five brief minutes. It was pure fan service, and the movie should’ve had five more scenes just like it.

Best Costume Design

The nominees

Assassin’s Creed  |  Mortal Kombat  |  Tomb Raider  |  Super Mario Bros.  |  Prince of Persia

And the Oscar goes to ...

Assassin’s Creed

In almost every respect, the "Assassin’s Creed" movie is hopeless. Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons couldn’t save the movie from its terrible, confusing script, and the movie is one of the worst examples of Hollywood’s obsession with "shaky cam" editing. The entire film is a chore, has no payoff, and I would never watch it again. But the Spanish Inquisition-period-specific costumes looked amazing. The iconic hooded outfit went from "assassin white" from the games to a more muted dark blue. It was designed for comfort and agility, perfect for stunts and while retaining the game’s style. It’s too bad it couldn’t cover for the rest of the film.

Best Visual Effects

The nominees

Detective Pikachu  |  Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within  |  Silent Hill  |  Warcraft  |  Rampage

And the Oscar goes to ...

Silent Hill

"Silent Hill" is, simply put, the most visually accurate game-to-film adaptation ever made. The town’s iconic transition from foggy town to its rusted cage aesthetic was rendered perfectly. Director Cristophe Gans passion for recreating the game’s visual style is clear. Pacing and script issues, like costar Sean Bean’s addled and unproductive scenes, weigh the film down. But no other video game film has ever looked this great, or horrifying.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The nominees

Silent Hill  |  Mortal Kombat  |  Tomb Raider (2018)  |  Max Payne |  Prince of Persia

And the Oscar goes to ...

Mortal Kombat

In line with Oscars tradition, we’re giving this award to the film that otherwise might have won Best Picture. The screenplay by Kevin Droney is pure schlock. But a video game that spells combat with a "K" is also pure schlock, and Droney’s script was written in pure service to that idea. To this day, fighting games still feature paper-thin plots; the 1995 film that many call the "first decent video game movie" packed in the lore. Like Goddard’s Kano portrayal, the script filled out everything that was left to our imagination in the game. Even by today’s standards, the humor isn’t terrible, and the action moves along at a brisk pace. It’s bargain basement stuff, but it’s still from a really fun basement. (This is a running theme of the field, as I’m sure you’ve realized by now.)

Best Supporting Actress

The nominees

Ming-Na Wen in Street Fighter: The Movie  |  Marion Cotillard in Assassin’s Creed  | Kathryn Newton in Detective Pikachu  |  Talisa Soto in Mortal Kombat  |  Naomie Harris in Rampage

And the Oscar goes to ...

Kathryn Newton

Detective Pikachu’s Lucy Stevens is one of the best portrayals of a woman journalist in Hollywood history. She does not sleep with any sources. Heck she isn’t even romantically interested in the leading man. She just wants to elevate her career beyond clickbait articles and uncover real stories about sleazy, government-approved corporate corruption. Kathryn Newton, like Raul Julia, knew what kind of movie she was in, and she hammed it up. Her performance was a melding of tropes you’d find in aggressive comic book reporters like Lois Lane, but grounded in the real-world ideals and hopes of young journalists today. Cheering on Lucy Stevens was a welcome relief In a world where cynicism and skepticism of the media prevails.

Best Supporting Actor

The nominees

Sean Bean in Silent Hill  |  Dennis Hopper in Super Mario Bros.  |  Trevor Goddard in Mortal Kombat  |  Daniel Craig in Tomb Raider (2001)  |  John Leguizamo in Super Mario Bros.

And the Oscar goes to ...

Trevor Goddard

Trevor Goddard, who died suddenly at 40 in 2003, embodied the laser-eyed mercenary Kano better than anyone could’ve hoped. The boxer-turned-actor’s performance is the rare Ret-Canon, an off-medium portrayal that is so fully realized and resonates so strongly that it leaves a mark on subsequent adaptations. Before, Kano was some knife-loving white boy who spent way too much time in Japan. After Goddard, Kano became the cockney-accented, swaggering cad we all know him to be today.

Best Director

The nominees

Rob Letterman (Detective Pikachu)  |  Roar Uthaug (Tomb Raider)  |  Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil: Retribution)  |  Christophe Gans (Silent Hill)  |  Thurop Van Orman (Angry Birds 2)

And the Oscar goes to ...

Resident Evil: Retribution

Like the Academy to Martin Scorsese, we’re giving this award belatedly to a director whose best work is behind him. Paul W. S. Anderson gave us Mortal Kombat, the first video game movie that was "cool." Then he decided to borrow the Resident Evil branding to make six oddball, "borderline experimental" action movies. None of these movies can be considered "good" in the traditional sense. The acting is terrible. The plots have zero continuity and the only recurring role belongs to his then-girlfriend-turned-wife Milla Jovovich. But the Resident Evil films killed at the box office and became a billion-dollar franchise, and they weren’t anything like Michael Bay blockbusters. They were weird and maximalist in gruesome, vulgar ways. Can a red-haired sexy lady kick a shard of glass into the face of a zombie dog? It’s a boring question for Anderson. The answer is always yes, and nothing is too preposterous or impossible for his relentless ballet of blood and bullets.

Best Actor

The nominees

Raul Julia in Street Fighter: The Movie  |  Ryan Reynolds in Detective Pikachu  |  Dwayne Johnson in Doom  |  Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time  |  Timothy Olyphant in Hitman

And the Oscar goes to ...

Raul Julia

Raul Julia struggled with cancer in 1994 as he filmed his last role as M. Bison, the villain from the Street Fighter games. He reportedly wanted to take a role that his kids would enjoy. And if you watch his performance, you’ll see that he reveled in it. Julia may have been the only cast member who knew what kind of movie he was in. After a woman recalls when Bison killed her father in an attack on her village, Julia famously stared back and deadpanned, "For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. For me, it was Tuesday." The banality of evil never sounded so delicious and terrifyingly casual.

Best Actress

The nominees

Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider (2018)  |  Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series  |  Radha Mitchell in Silent Hill  |  Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider (2001)  |  Maya Rudolph in Angry Birds

And the Oscar goes to ...

Alicia Vikander

Angelina Jolie’s pitch-perfect performance as the confident, sassy and sexy Lara Croft of the ‘90s should never be forgotten. She was the perfect Croft for her time. But Alicia Vikander, who has her own Oscar statue, brought enough physicality and brute strength for the entire subgenre of video game films. She was Indiana Jones re-imagined as Ronda Rousey. And despite the film’s several tiresome exposition dumps, Vikander found ways to make her scenes explode with effort and panache. Lara Croft deserves better than low-rent Indiana Jones knockoff scripts — and so does Vikander.

Best Picture

The nominees

Detective Pikachu  |  Tomb Raider (2018)  |  Mortal Kombat  |  Angry Birds 2  |  Silent Hill

And the Oscar goes to ...

Detective Pikachu

All five films nominated are regularly cited in deliberations about the best video game movie — which should give you a sense of the strength of the field. Detective Pikachu pulls ahead not just because it’s gorgeous and a fun comedy adventure on its own merits, but also because it does the best job of any video game movie explaining the nuances of its world, weaving them into a well-paced and personal story. Its workmanlike efficiency is the truest gap between this film and the rest. Every department fired on all cylinders to tell a story that was easy to follow, and most importantly, easy to feel. The fact that the story involves a coffee-addled, hard-boiled police detective Pikachu voiced by Ryan Reynolds makes its feat all the more incredible. It’s the very best, like no one ever was.

Gene Park

Gene Park is a reporter for The Washington Post, covering video games and gaming culture. He joined The Post in 2015.

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