By Keith Staskiewicz
Updated March 28, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
Melinda Sue Gordon

Anytime a movie is compared to a videogame, you can be sure there’s at least the ghost of a sneer on the speaker’s lips. But if the conventional hierarchy of pop cultural snobbery is so clear-cut — books > movies > videogames — then why do efforts to adapt games into movies always pale in comparison with their source material?

The latest property to get a big-screen makeover is Need for Speed, a moderately popular racing series that the powers that be have tried to turn into a turbo-boosted stunt-car extravaganza of the same make and model as the Fast & Furious franchise. Aaron Paul, still fresh-ish off Breaking Bad, plays a young drag racer who must make it across the country in 45 hours to attend a secret no-rules circuit and avenge the death of his friend. While the movie is flashy and might give some adrenaline junkies a fix, there’s almost nothing under the hood. The story is tired, the dialogue’s an assemblage of clichés, and even the action sequences, which lack the pop and imagination of other recent revved-up joyrides like Fast & Furious 6, feel as if they’re from another era. Beneath all that chrome plating, this vehicle is a well-used car. Need for Speed is just another pileup in Hollywood’s long accident report of taking games from the couch to the theater seat.

In fact, the studios have stalled out from the very beginning. The earliest example, 1993’s Super Mario Bros., attempted to horn in on Nintendo’s success, casting the improbable pair of Bob Hoskins as the iconic Italian plumber Mario and John Leguizamo as his brother Luigi, thrown together to battle Dennis Hopper’s malicious were-lizard King Koopa. The film reached Howard the Duck levels of not-getting-it, and the result was a cross-generational embarrassment similar to having your grandmother struggle to master Twitter. Since then, there have been bombs (Doom) and hits (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), but none of them have been what you would call good movies. And no videogame adaptation has ever reached Fresh status on Rotten Tomatoes.

Of course, this won’t stop Hollywood from trying. Videogame sales reached $15.4 billion last year in the U.S. alone, and it’s doubtful that studios will walk away from a pot that big anytime soon, especially as both industries rely ever more heavily on megablockbuster franchises. But lest you think it’s game over from the start, not all cross-pollination has been bad. Wreck-It Ralph and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World took videogame aesthetics and iconography and spun them into the DNA strands of their narratives. That’s a much smarter way to go. So let’s give up adapting videogames’ often-weak story elements while failing to provide the one thing they offer: the ability to play. Maybe then we won’t have movies like Need for Speed, where you look down at your hands and miss holding the controller. C

Need for Speed

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 131 minutes
  • Scott Waugh