Rotten Tomatoes’ Mark Ellis on Halo, Uncharted & video game adaptations
Mark Ellis is a comedian, actor, podcaster, and self-proclaimed “dog stepfather” who has been dissecting pop culture for over a decade. In addition to performing in comedy clubs nationwide, Ellis co-hosts Rotten Tomatoes is Wrong, where he dissects both critically fresh and rotten movies like Spider-Man 3, Cats, and Thor: The Dark World, and regularly appears on The Rotten Tomatoes Channel (which can be found on Peacock, The Roku Channel, XUMO TV, and Samsung TV plus) to discuss a wide variety of topics, from this year’s Academy Awards to the rough critical reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Ellis took time away from his duties as a Rotten Tomatoes contributing editor and correspondent to talk to Digital Trends about the recent proliferation of video game adaptations on the big and small screen. Ellis weighs in on the less-than-stellar reputation of past video game movies such as Super Mario Bros., why Uncharted may signal a sea change on how these movies are produced by studios and received by audiences, and whether or not a video game adaptation will ever win Best Picture at the Oscars.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: Video game adaptations have been traditionally bad-to-awful in the past. Why is that?
Mark Ellis: Video game adaptations started out as a lark to let kids see their favorite characters on the big screen. I think that was the studio perception of it: That these [movies] are going to be made for kids. Back in the day, video games were just considered something that you did when you were a child, and then you would eventually grow up and get a job and never play them again. Well, that obviously is not the case with any of my adult friends who grew up playing these games on Nintendo or Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo or PlayStation. And so, when we had Super Mario Bros. way back in 1993, it was like, “Oh, it’s cool to see Mario and Luigi, but this movie’s terrible.”
And then 1995 came around and blessed us with the original Mortal Kombat. So many people, myself included, still enjoy watching Mortal Kombat and feel like that movie still holds up in a way. It speaks to the fact that fans love this stuff much more than the critics because Mortal Kombat is at 45% on the Tomatometer, which is rotten. Now, the new Mortal Kombat film from 2021 was also a very big movie for HBO Max. It might have been at the time of its release the most-watched film ever on HBO Max, and that film is still below fresh territory at 54%. And so we’ve made some progress in that time, but again, I think that we’re just now starting to realize that folks of all ages can embrace video game content, and it does not have to be made just for one sect of the population.
In the past few years, there seems to have been a small shift in improvement for video game adaptations. When Digital Trends ranked the best video game adaptations of all time, almost all the movies on the list came out in the last five years. What has changed recently that has caused that improvement in quality?
I think the biggest reason for the shift [in quality] is because the creators treat the material as precious as they would now a comic book movie. Because you can look at the history of video game movies and the history of comic book films and see similarities. People felt like comic books and video games were just these things that kids do, but they are clearly beloved by a mass population. As video game content creators could look to the MCU and some of the great DC movies that we’ve gotten in the last two decades, you could say, “OK, well, they’re taking this stuff more seriously.” They’re putting A-listers in those movies. They are crafting a story from the source material that also fits well into a two-hour big-screen adventure. We can do the same thing with all of these seeds the video games have planted.
When you look at something like Tomb Raider in 2018, the filmmakers had the luxury of getting to look at a previous Tomb Raider franchise that’s very [critically] rotten and build upon that. With Uncharted coming out earlier this year, you could see that this was a video game adaptation that was in development hell for a long time, and they finally were able to do two things. First, they could get a star that’s hot off of one of the biggest movies ever, Tom Holland from Spider-Man: No Way Home, and pair him with someone that we trust in action films like a Mark Wahlberg. On top of that, they made sure they had an A-list villain presence with Antonio Banderas. Second, they could use the action-adventure template established by the Indiana Jones series and, later, the National Treasure movies, and build on that. So as a result, Uncharted is doing boffo box office now. It’s is at 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, so that movie may not be the best example of the critics accepting the new film, but it seems like audiences and their wallets are speaking very loudly that they want more stuff like this.
How would you respond to some criticism directed at Uncharted that an adaptation of a video game that is already so movie-like isn’t necessary?
I think Uncharted had a much different hurdle to get over than, say, Sonic the Hedgehog from a couple of years ago. Sonic is a fresh movie on the Tomatometer at 63% percent because we went into that where we weren’t as precious about the world of Sonic. Now, certainly, fans were precious about the look of Sonic as the social media backlash to the trailer showed, which the studio did take to heart and changed the look of Sonic to appease fans. But we were going to Sonic because we wanted to feel nostalgic, or we wanted to take our kids to go see it. And we got both of those things. We got a movie for families, and it ended up paying off.
With Uncharted, it’s a more current video game property and its fans take it more seriously from a storyline perspective. They really care about the characters in Uncharted and they want to see that honored on the big screen. The challenge for a filmmaker is to say how much of that lore can I put into a movie that’s going to satisfy the hardcore gamers, but that I can also add to it with my own creativity to make it appeal to a mass audience?
I think that the backlash you’re hearing from a lot of Uncharted fans is that they felt like they could have gotten a “better” movie by sticking exactly to a lot of the story points and the character look from the video games. Their argument is that the filmmakers didn’t have to go off on a different story tangent and cast actors who don’t look like the characters from the video game. But if you can get someone who’s as hot of a star as Tom Holland or Mark Wahlberg in the movie, it’s mitigating the risk of investing a lot of money into a cinematically unproven property and guaranteeing box office numbers.
If some fans were left salty by the first Uncharted, I would look back to what the filmmakers were able to do with Sonic when they heard the complaint of fans and they were able to maneuver around it. If you are a fan of Uncharted and you didn’t love the way the movie was presented, fans have the right to voice their opinion, and I would do so in an eloquent fashion because you never know if the studios are listening to you or not. But if there is a loud voice saying. “This is what we want from our next Uncharted adventure,” I think they’re going to heed the warnings.
Halo is about to be unleashed after years of development hell. Unlike most video game adaptations in the past, this one is being released as a series on Paramount+. Is this a smart move for the Halo franchise?
I think it’s a genius move for the Halo franchise. I’m a big Halo video game fan and so getting to see it as a streaming service narrative, not as just a two-hour film, makes all the sense in the world because Halo can go so deep into its mythology and can take its time telling a story a lot like the video game does. Just look at the video game runtimes that the gaming industry is pumping out; we’re talking about 50, 60, 70 hours of gameplay that’s way too immersive to be able to translate into a movie that’s going to satisfy both casual and hardcore fans of Halo.
Getting to watch Halo on a streaming platform where you have a little bit more time to play in this world and to feel the otherworldly environment, I think Halo is the right property to do that. Whereas Uncharted, you can make a fun and satisfactory adventure in two hours. With Halo, you want to explore what is going on with this world, what Master Chief’s motivations are, what’s driving him, who’s the antagonist, etc.? There’s a whole lot to get into. And so I think that this is the right property at the right time to take advantage of what streaming platforms can do for video game stories.
Yeah, I agree. Shows based on video games on streaming platforms seem to be a trend going forward now. After Halo, there are more small-screen video game adaptations than ever: The Last of Us, God of War, even Twisted Metal. What makes streaming a more viable venue to enjoy these adaptations than film?
Streaming is more viable for video game properties because you have more time to lay the foundation and then tell whatever story you’re going to tell in season one. The biggest pitfall of 2021’s Mortal Kombat was that it’s a movie, and so it felt like it had to lay a foundation to establish all these characters. They did that successfully, but it took the entire movie to do so.
Whereas Halo or The Last of Us or any other video game property that’s going to be streaming soon has that ability to take that first episode and just set everything up. Those shows can start their narratives without leaving a lot of the fans out in the cold. It does relate back to how well do we know this property and what are we going to this for?
We’re going to see Sonic the Hedgehog or even The Angry Birds Movie because we want a fun adventure with characters that we know. We don’t have to spend a whole lot of time setting that world up, but with something like Halo, you do. You do want to treat that property with respect because it’s the same problem that I think befell Warcraft because [the director] Duncan Jones clearly loves Warcraft. He really cared about making that movie, and he probably wanted a 10-hour cut of that film if he had his way. Well, that’s not possible for a theatrical movie. You can have a 10-hour cut of a movie, but only as a series that is best-suited for a streaming platform that can invest a lot of time and energy in it. And that’s what we’re getting with Halo, and maybe we will get that with Warcraft once again someday.
Do you believe that video games are the next medium for Hollywood to mine for content? They are already adapting comic books left and right. In two weeks, we are getting a big-screen interpretation of Morbius and a small-screen adaptation of Moon Knight. These obscure characters are now getting proper presentation and representation in mass media.
I feel like video games are the next comic book movies because the box office is starting to show studios how viable these properties are and that they aren’t just for a niche audience. That was always the fear with comic book movies is that if filmmakers cast Michael Keaton as Batman, are they going to lose all the hardcore Batman fans? You have a built-in fan base, but you also have crossover appeal that studios are seeing the returns of something like Uncharted, which is crushing it worldwide, and Sonic the Hedgehog, which did well enough to spawn a sequel that is also going to do great.
Then you have Mortal Kombat, which came out during the height of the pandemic in theaters too and made over $30 million past its budget. These movies are making money and they’re doing it on a global scale. You can even go back and look at the Resident Evil franchise, and they may not have been monster hits here in America, but did well internationally. There’s a reason why Sony made so many of those movies. They dominated the global box office, and so studios are looking to international markets to make as much money as possible. They’re saying, “What is a movie that not just American audiences want to see? What’s a film property that people all around Earth want to check out?” Video game movies could be the answer.
Will we ever see a video game film adaptation win Best Picture?
I don’t think you’re going to see a video game adaptation win Best Picture soon. When a comic book film ends up winning Best Picture, I reserve the right to change my statement. I think comic book movies have to break that seal first and then maybe a video game movie, if it’s good enough, can get a Best Picture nomination.