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Killing the Bioshock Movie

Ken Levine
Ken Levine tells all

A few years ago, a film based on the remarkable objectivism-inspired video game Bioshock was all but certain. Gore Verbinski, the mastermind behind the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, was set to direct, a script was developed, and Universal Studios was on board. It was originally slated to be released in 2010. A couple of weeks ago, while promoting the latest game in the franchise, Bioshock Infinite (which releases today), Ken Levine, co-founder of Irrational Games and the creative force behind Bioshock, revealed why the film hasn't happened yet and why it is not currently in development.

According to Levine, it all starts with Watchmen, the R-rated comic book adaptation that was released in late 2009. The film got mixed reviews that trended more positive than negative, but it was not the strong box office performer Universal was hoping for. It was produced on a budget of $130 million, and it only earned roughly $108 million during its domestic run. Though not a full-blown flop, it was certainly a disappointment for the studio. Gore Verbinski, who was signed on as the prospective director for the Bioshock movie at the time, was asking for an enormous budget of $200 million and was adamant about getting a hard R rating. With Watchmen underperforming, the studio--despite its previous enthusiasm for the project--was no longer willing to risk money on Bioshock. Universal tried to get the movie made on an $80 million budget and a different director, but Levine and 2K Games started getting nervous. The ultimate decision as to whether or not to continue developing the Bioshock movie was given to Levine, who chose to go ahead and kill it.

Fans of Bioshock are understandably upset to hear this, but Levine made the right call. If Universal had continued on the path it was on, a Bioshock movie would have been rushed through the studio on an incredibly tight budget with a relatively untested director, and the chances of that ending well weren't great.

Granted, it could be great in 3-D

But that's not the most controversial thing I'm going to write here, because not only do I believe that Levine made the right call, but I think Universal did too. Let's face it: video game adaptations have a niche audience with little room for expansion, and you can count on one hand the number of video game adaptations that are actually decent films in their own right. On top of that, the Bioshock story is very genre-specific to both sci-fi and horror--which also screams "niche"--and deals with very heavy philosophical and political themes that aren't easily accessible by a wide audience. Verbinski has a record of success with the speculatively dubious Pirates of the Caribbean films--and that pedigree certainly bodes well--but even with him on board as director, there's no guarantee that Bioshock would be box office gold. With Verbinski unwilling to accept a budget under $200 million or a more family-friendly rating, Universal was right to cry uncle and look around for a new director.

Unfortunately, if you're still looking for someone to inflict your nerd rage on, I don't think you can blame Verbinski either. Bioshock is relentlessly violent and visceral. The themes depend upon showing the base brutality and bestiality of mankind, with much of the plot's power delivered through shocking moments of inhumanity and moral degradation. You simply cannot deliver this story without the R-rating. On top of that, the story takes place entirely in a grandiose underwater city and deals with people who have been genetically modified to do things like shoot fire, control insects, and move things telekinetically. Trying to do that without a big budget is courting really cheap CG shortcuts and disappointing set designs. Verbinski is right to argue that a Bioshock movie would have to be geared strictly for adults and would have to be a very expensive project.

I'm not going to write that a good Bioshock film is impossible, but anybody looking at it objectively has to concede that it is improbable. From a business perspective, the risks far outweigh the potential rewards, and thus any studio willing to take it on would have to be in a state of desperation. From a creative standpoint, you can't eliminate any of those risks without sacrificing critical aspects of the story. From a fan perspective, one has to admit that if it can't be done right, it would be better to leave it to the imagination.

Not exactly PG-13

This raises the question: why are fans so eager to see a Bioshock film? The game is absolutely stellar, with its moody atmosphere, startlingly deep storyline, and ground-breaking tone. Could a film add anything to this? I seriously doubt it. A film, if done right, could bring everything that makes Bioshock great to a wider audience--potentially building more appreciation for the fact that gaming has grown up into a bonafide artform--but how many non-gamers can really be brought in?

The history of video game adaptations indicates that non-gamers simply aren't interested in seeing movies based on video games. This trend is not absolute, of course, and it only takes one truly exceptional adaptation to change it. Bioshock has the potential to do it, but it's impossible to predict when fickle moviegoers will finally embrace the niche. I believe, one day, video games will enjoy a film renaissance similar to the one comic books are enjoying today, but that day could easily be a decade or more from now.

There are many video game movies that I enjoy--Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Silent Hill, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time--but none of them deserve to even be in contention for a spot on a list of greatest films ever made. The vast majority of them, if we're being honest with each other, are actually pretty terrible, and the greatness of the games they are based upon doesn't make a difference. Yes, Bioshock is one of the greatest games of this generation, but that in no way means it will be a great--or even good--film. With that in mind, everybody involved in killing the project--Universal, Gore Verbinski, 2K Games, and ultimately Ken Levine--made the right choice.

-e. magill 3/26/2013

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