Anybody who's played Uncharted: Drake's Fortune or Uncharted 2: Among Thieves knows exactly who should play Nathan Drake in the Uncharted movie: Mark Wahlberg. I mean, have you seen that guy act? He brings both his facial expressions to the party, and he brings them hard.
All right, fine. We all know only Nathan Fillion deserves to wear Drake's trademark shoulder holster. I even saw a YouTube video of a superfan telling Uncharted director David O. Russell — to his face — that Whalberg was a mistake and Fillion a perfect win for the role. Soon after, rumors swirled that Whalberg had dropped out. The internet held its breath for an announcement.
What would Dirk Diggler do?
In truth, that fan pretty much nixed any slender chance Fillion had.
A lot of factors go into casting a movie. As considerations go, fan opinion ranks somewhere below who's catering the on-set grub. But that's not the only reason Hollywood might never cast a video-game movie right again.
Let's start with the basics. David O. Russell signed Mark Wahlberg to play Drake because Marky Mark fit three major criteria for the job;
1. He's an A-list name who can open a movie.
2. His price tag works within the film's budget.
3. He's worked with Russell several times before.
In a nutshell, that's what goes wrong every single time. Money, money, and relationships.
Two things determine what kind of a budget event movies like an Uncharted, a Resident Evil, or a BloodRayne get: the director and the star. Both need a track record of delivering films moviegoers line up for, and every star's bankability on opening weekend is a matter of public record. When Vin Disel dropped out of Hitman, a chunk of budget went with him. Most game movies don’t start with a huge budget to begin with. They hire who they can afford, so the production went with a cheaper, lesser-known lead…Timothy Olyphant, one quality badass in Deadwood and Justified but horribly miscast as Agent 47.
You're not fooling anyone, baldy.
On the other hand, when a proven director (Mike Newell) and a big-name actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) step aboard a project, you get a summer CGI-fest like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Never mind that Gyllenhaal's several shades too white to pass as a mere citizen of Persia, much less royalty. He brought people into the theaters…people who never played the game, or even knew they were watching something based on a game.
So it's always a juggle between what a movie can afford and what star power can return. Adding a small request like appropriate casting might be asking too much, particularly when you consider how outrageous and larger-than-life most game characters are.
Certainly, the stars aligned when Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft. You can bet Jack Black would've gotten a feature-length Brutal Legend rolling if the game hadn't tanked, with himself reprising the role of Eddie Riggs. He probably would’ve brought along a director he knew and trusted to helm it.
Relationships like that are incredibly strong in Hollywood, and so are the egos. That fan talking up Nathan Fillion tried to turn Russell onto a great thing, but Russell already had his "great thing": an actor he knows and trusts. And he clearly didn't appreciate this nobody questioning his choice of heroic lead.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jamie Foxx, Bruce Willis, and Jennifer Aniston.
See, directors don't like to be dictated to by anyone. They are the captains of their ships, you're not privy to their vision for your game, and they don't care what you think. That’s why internet campaigns never work.
Put it all together and you get Mark Wahlberg as Nathan Drake and Max Payne, Jean-Claude Van Damme in Street Fighter, Keanu Reaves attached to Bioshock, Bruce Willis and Jamie Foxx set to play Kane & Lynch, respectively. Names you know. And when the reviews come out, maybe they'll slam Wahlberg for not bringing the empathy, lightness, and charm that makes Nathan Drake such a great character. If so, Russell can blame us for not accepting his film for what it is.
But we shouldn't. These are adaptations, and like any adaptation, the further you stray from the source material, the stronger your justification must be. Bringing a game to the silver screen presents unique challenges, but we spend hundreds of hours with these characters, as these characters. They are our anchor through these experiences. Get them right and the rest falls into place.
Until then, a good video-game movie simply won't happen.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!