Opinion: Why A J.J. Abrams Half-Life Movie Could Be The Best (Or Worst) Idea Ever
At the recent DICE summit, the audience was left stunned when noted sci-fi director J.J. Abrams revealed that both he and video game giants Valve were teaming up to produce a big screen adaptation of one of their two biggest franchises: Half-Life and Portal.
Abrams might seem a logical choice, having had considerable success in TV and cinema – not to mention bringing Star Trek back from the brink of destruction, and being poised to do the same with Star Wars.
However, there are certain factors that could see J.J. Abrams adaptations of Half-Life or Portal turn out really, really well – or really, really badly.
Let’s start with the bad news…
Reasons why it won’t work
1) Abrams doesn’t know how to do slow, thoughtful films
Ask Star Trek fans their opinion on the series reboot and the reaction you’ll get will inevitably be divided. But one complaint you’ll almost always hear is that it never really felt like a Star Trek movie.
The Trek universe was always the more philosophical counterpoint to Star Wars’ action-oriented aesthetic. It was always more about the exploration and analyzing the human psyche. And this flags up the first roadblock that Abrams will have to overcome with Valve’s material.
Portal and Half-Life are not action-obsessed games; they’re more cerebral experiences. Gordon Freeman and Chell don’t go around simply tearing up the scenery and causing chaos, and while you obviously use guns in the Half-Life series, they’re usually not even Gordon’s first choice of weapon.
The point is that action takes a backseat to the deep and rich story that Valve craft out of the respective universes. They’re primarily about the consequences of our actions – whether it be the Combine in Half Life or GLADoS in Portal – and how the protagonist deals with it. If Abrams were to direct a film based on either of these franchises, these themes would most likely be put on the backburner and not explored in detail, so that he could instead make an action film that appeals to a the widest possible audience.
2) Abrams may well ‘reboot’ the series
One of the reasons Abrams created his alternate universe for the new Star Trek movies was so he didn’t have to rely on and fit his ideas into the decades-worth of continuity that came with the franchise.
And while he won’t be able to do this completely with the new Star Wars film, he will most likely do this with any adaptation of Half Life or Portal – the first reason being that, similarly, he probably won’t want to rely on already-established canon.
However, a second reason for a reboot would tie in with our previous problem: Abrams would want to give the movie a more action-oriented spin. I can see him turning Freeman from a scientist into a member of Black Mesa’s security team, and have him swap his trusty crowbar for a semi-automatic. Or, instead of the turrets in Portal remaining stationary until Chell walks in front of them, perhaps they would be able to rove around and seek her out?
3) Movie adaptations of video games rarely work
This is perhaps the biggest reason why alarm bells were ringing when I heard the announcement. No matter how good the source material, story, director or talent, big screen adaptations of games hardly ever turn out well.
For a perfect example check out the recently-released Silent Hill: Revelation, which not only performed pretty poorly at the box office, making a measly $47 million on a budget of $20 million, but was also completely mauled by critics – scoring just 7% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Here at FMV, we’ve looked at the key reasons behind the failures of adaptations before. Usually, it’s because they take a complete departure from the game’s storyline, often substituting new characters for the sake of making it more ‘accessible’ in the process.
Then, there’s the directors themselves, the most notorious being Uwe Boll. Few have any real respect for the source material and, more often than not, their only interest is in directing brainless action films that only appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Of course, Abrams himself has a much more impressive CV than most. But there’s also the basic difficulty of turning a 10-hour gaming storyline into something that can be told in less than two. This often means cutting out huge chunks of narrative that will then affect the final outcome, potentially opening up huge plot holes in the story.
But enough of the doom and gloom. What about the good news?
Reasons why it will work:
1) Valve will be overseeing the project
In a previous article, I stated that one of the only ways a movie adaptation of a video game could work is if the studio who owns the rights to the game is involved in making the film. From the way that both Gabe Newell and J.J Abrams were talking at the DICE summit, it looks like both parties are going to be working together.
This means that unlike certain other adaptations of games, J.J won’t just be given carte blanche to go in whatever direction he wants. Most likely, this will mean that while he’ll change little pieces here and there, he wont be allowed to diverge from the main story or character of either franchise altogether.
Hopefully then, fans will get a film that actually respects the source material – unlike pretty much every other movie adaptation, where the director/writer seem not only to have failed to play the game they’re meant to be basing their movie on, but also have no idea what they’re actually about either.
2) The storylines are perfect for cinema
The plots of both Half-Life and Portal are typical underdog stories, thick with suspense and intrigue to boot. This should be music to the ears of Hollywood.
Both games revolve around an unlikely protagonist taking on and overcoming astonishing odds, and forces they can barely comprehend. In Half-Life, we have an ordinary scientist fighting an alien invasion. In Portal, we have an imprisoned ‘lab rat’ engaged in a battle of wits with a maniacal AI.
These types of stories, where a seemingly ordinary person takes on the big bad and wins against all the odds, is one of the most popular frameworks in cinema history: covering everything from Danny Caruso in Karate Kid to John McClane in Die Hard.
The reason Hollywood makes them, and the reason we watch them, is because underdogs are just like us; we can relate to them because they aren’t some hulking giant who can just fight their way out of any situation. They’re unpolished and fallible, they make mistakes, they fall at most hurdles but they get back up and fight and do whatever it takes to succeed. Abrams therefore has ideal concepts and characters to work with if he so-chooses.
3) Abrams is a talented director and producer
Let’s face it: at the moment, there is really no better filmmaker in Hollywood to take on a major sci-fi adventure. Even though he changed fundamental aspects of the Star Trek universe, he also brought what was once a dying franchise back from the brinks, as well as introducing a whole new generation of fans to the franchise. And he looks set to do the same with Star Wars.
He’s a bankable director with an array of successful sci-fi and action movies under his belt, so if we are going to have anyone direct an adaptation of Half-Life or Valve, you’d rather it be Abrams than some random hack.
From his TV work on LOST and Fringe, it’s clear that he respects good storytelling, and and how to keep the audience interested and invested in the struggles of each character. Is there any other director you’d rather have?