x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Space Invaders: retro video game may make it to the big screen

With prominent film producers having reportedly optioned the rights to the classic video game Space Invaders, speculation of a possible feature film grows.

A screen-shot of the computer game Space Invaders.
A screen-shot of the computer game Space Invaders.

It's a scene from, potentially, the next Hollywood blockbuster. Earth is threatened by imminent extraterrestrial attack. Our hero points his heavy duty weaponry at the sky and takes aim. The audience holds its collective breath. And then the defender of life on this planet catches a glimpse of what humanity is up against: Five rows of 11 aliens descending in formations which look, to the 21st-century eye at least, like a series of poorly drawn emoticons.

Welcome, in all seriousness, to Space Invaders: the movie.

Earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter announced that producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Gigi Pritzker had optioned the rights to the classic arcade video game from the late 1970s. And for "option the rights" one imagines they simply mean "buy the name", because as any gamer of a certain age knows, there is no story to Space Invaders beyond firing a laser at a load of blocky aliens inching down the screen. When those pesky aliens are defeated, another wave appears. Repeat until thumbs bleed.

But it does make some kind of sense. Not only do moviegoers love a good alien-invasion film, but Space Invaders' video game creator Tomohiro Nishikado credited a childhood spent watching a movie adaptation of HG Wells's The War of the Worlds as a major inspiration. It was surely no coincidence that Star Wars had hit cinemas just a year before, either.

Space Invaders, the game, might look endearingly retro now, but when it was first released it revolutionised gaming. Tap into some of that cultural cachet and not only will kids flock to see the film, but their dads will probably fancy a nostalgia-laden trip down memory lane, too.

Di Bonaventura certainly has form when it comes to bringing games - and toys - from the 1980s and early 1990s to the big screen: he previously produced the GI Joe and Doom movies. Most notably, though, he's been a producer on all three Transformers films. Transformers, of course, began life as the must-have mid-1980s action figures, then became an animated television series and comic book, and only in 2007 ended up as a Michael Bay-directed, crash-bang live-action blockbuster featuring those robots in disguise.

And this is where the guardians of Space Invaders' reputation would do well to take note. Transformers has been, well, transformed from a toy children would play with into a pretty unpleasant, aggressively sexualised film series for adolescents. In the current movie, a model, rather than an actress, plays the lead female role. Similarly, Masters of the Universe (starring Dolph Lundgren as He-Man) hardly channelled the power of Grayskull - it was such a poor film, the original toy line on which it was based was scrapped just a year later.

From Silent Hill to Super Mario Brothers, Tomb Raider to Doom, the main problem in adapting video games or toys isn't so much rendering the characters or setting, but writing a believable, coherent script. If a child is playing with a toy, or guiding Lara Croft around a labyrinthine tomb, they are creating their own narrative, writing chapters for themselves. Such personal involvement is why video games are so addictive - the story is constantly shifting.

Doom, the movie, meanwhile, was like watching somebody else play a video game, which, in the boredom stakes, ranks right up there alongside listening to people recount their dreams.

Even so, there are still those who hope that realistic, all-action video games such as Call of Duty or Halo make it to the big screen one day. Given the highly cinematic sheen both games possess, it makes some kind of sense (indeed, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson was briefly attached to a Halo project), but once again, one wonders if these games' fans have actually considered how watered-down and disappointing a version of Call of Duty would be if they weren't actually directing the action.

The real reason these adaptations get made, of course, isn't as some kind of validation of the original toy or game's brilliance. It's because Hollywood bean counters know that they have a ready-made market. Essentially, we're suckers: anyone who grew up with Space Invaders would naturally be intrigued by what a film might entail because it was such an iconic experience to play the game as a child. But, just for once, how about getting someone really good to write the screenplay and direct the film? A Christopher Nolan or the Coen Brothers? Or is that just too adult and cerebral for an industry that still treats video games fans as kids?