Detective Pikachu and the Future of Video Game Movies

May 13, 2019 | Movies

Over the weekend, I saw Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, and though my movie reviewing days are behind me, I was struck by the significance of this film’s existence. I am now of the opinion that we are on the cusp of a major change in the media landscape, and Detective Pikachu is a catalyst.

Deja Vu all over Again

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that movies are the most important medium of our society.

The reasons for this are largely practical. Movies provide a way to experience Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk—an artistic piece that engages all the senses and encompasses all other forms of art—and they provide it in a way that is affordable to the common man.

Of course, home streaming and long-form television are going to upend the current paradigm eventually.

But in the meantime, movies are the quickest way to gain legitimacy with mainstream audiences. That’s why a successful work in any other medium necessitates a motion picture adaptation. You wrote the most popular book in the world? Great! Now let’s turn it into a movie so all the non-nerds who don’t read can enjoy it too.

This is also why, in almost every case, I rejoice whenever a movie version of one of my favorite stories is announced. Even the adaptation is an imperfect one, even if it takes liberties with the source material, it is preferable in every case (with rare exceptions) for the movie version to exist.

And this is what has happened with comic book movies.

Now, we had some wonderful movies based on superheroes for many decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe rolled around.

But we were only getting a good superhero movie about once per decade. And even those were considered oddities. No one at the time would have suggested that comic book adaptations would be carrying the entire failing film industry like a fireman rescuing people from a burning Hollywood mansion.

When Video Games get Their Turn

As someone who was raised on video games, and has always appreciated the unique stories they have told, I have long found myself frustrated at the lack of good movie adaptations for games.

Because when you love a work of art that is not a movie, you often find yourself on an island. My parents don’t play video games, and were never interested to hear what I had to say about them. Likewise, most of my school friends were not gamers. Or, if they were, they stayed away from story-driven games, preferring the games where you mindlessly kill things to rack up points.

A good video game to movie adaptation would have changed that. If even one Final Fantasy or Zelda title had been properly adapted, it would have opened the floodgates for more of my personal favorites to get the big screen treatment, and then these stories, which I had been forced to keep to myself for such a long time, would have been available to everyone in my circle of acquaintance.

But, as I’m sure you’re aware, every attempt to make a movie based off a video game was doomed. We got so many poorly written, badly designed, and not-at-all-thought-through cringefests that it seemed like video games stories were inherently unfilmable, just like comic book stories were for so many years.

Yet I knew that if a single video game movie could properly prove itself—showing the studios of the world just how this kind of adaptation could be done—then the vast reservoir of video game stories, which has been building up over decades, could flood the world of cinema overnight, and every single game from my childhood would get a shot at motion-picture greatness.

But when oh when was that going to happen?

The Chosen One is…a Pokémon Spinoff?

The original Detective Pikachu was a game for Nintendo’s 3DS system that used the Pokémon IP as a backdrop for a more typical noir detective story, albeit with elements of science fiction and fantasy.

It had little resemblance to the main line of Pokémon games and was received lukewarmly by gamers and game reviewers alike.

So of course Nintendo announced that it would be the basis for the first-ever live-action Pokémon movie. People the world over were left scratching their heads. What on Earth were the guys in charge thinking?

Then we saw the trailer. Then we got hooked. Then we saw the movie. Then we knew something had changed.

So How is the Movie?

Kind of off-kilter.

The pacing is too quick (though that’s worlds better than “too slow”), and the third act is a mess (the villain’s plan is completely bonkers and not well foreshadowed). In many ways, Detective Pikachu is half-baked movie.

But more importantly, it is a movie that tries. Every single frame and scene shows the effort of the filmmakers. Whether it’s the fact that it was shot on actual film instead of digitally, or the fact that the original lore of the video game series was respected and treated as canon (though the film wisely chose to explore it only shallowly), or the amazing performances of the actors, these people put their backs into it.

And after decades of video game adaptations that phoned it in, cashed it in, and left audiences out to dry, this movie was nothing short of a revelation. If nothing else, it was a blueprint for future movies to follow. It has genuine heart and lovable characters, which in the world of visual storytelling covereth a multitude of sins.

And Ryan Reynolds singing the original Pokémon theme song in a sad voice is worth the price of admission all on its own.

The Floodgates are already Opening

Even before Detective Pikachu’s announcement, several video game adaptations were being co-developed.

A Sonic the Hedgehog movie is being released later this year (though the trailer makes it look like exactly the kind of video game movie we used to get), and a Super Mario Bros. movie is in the works at Illumination (the makers of Despicable Me and the latest Grinch movie).

And I’m going to call it now: despite Detective Pikachu‘s flaws, it will be seen as the one who opened the door to all future video game adaptations. It completely disproves the notion that games are unfilmable. It does justice to the source material and, if nothing else, pleases fans of the original games—exactly the first thing that every future video game movie must do.

It’s not longer a fantasy. This is happening. And it will bleed over into other forms of media as well. The clever and industrious writer will learn to take advantage of this new climate.

Keep your eyes open. You’re going to want to study this as it happens.