You may have heard that Lionsgate now have the rights to develop a Borderlands movie. So what was your first reaction to the news? Excitement? Apprehension? As someone who has played all the games and is currently knee deep in foam, fabric and paint working on Borderlands cosplay, I have to say it was certainly an announcement that made me sit up and take notice. The sci-fi frontier world of Pandora is a distinctively cinematic one and, done right, the franchise could make for a fantastic big screen experience. But done right is a fairly weighty qualifier. Let’s not kid ourselves, video game movies in Hollywood do not exactly have a stellar history and the producer tied to the project, Avi Arad, has more than a few misses on his CV. So I’m more intrigued than excited at this point.
I thought I’d take a few moments to share some of the things about this franchise that I’d like to see done justice on the big screen, as well as my initial concerns on the “danger zones” – that is, the things I fear Hollywood is most likely to ruin.
Announcement is no guarantee
So first of all let’s just remember, a movie announcement doesn’t ensure that project will last through to big screen fruition. There have been so many high profile film and TV projects rumoured, even cast and filmed over the years, that never made it to the release stage. I’m still wondering what ever happened to the AMC TV show based on Dan Simmons’ The Terror (one of my favourite novels) that was hyped in 2013 but seems to have vanished without trace in the intervening years (rather like the unfortunate Arctic explorers in the book) . And I’ll probably never get over the loss of the Guillermo Del Toro At The Mountains of Madness movie (yeah I have thing about doomed polar expeditions). So it’s very early days for any Borderlands-inspired projects and if I never heard any more about this movie I wouldn’t be that surprised.
Style and tone
But lets assume this film does get made. What might it be like? I thought I’d got as close as I ever would to seeing Borderlands the Movie earlier this year when I sat enthralled through Mad Max: Fury Road. Gearbox have never exactly been subtle with their pop-cultural references. George Miller’s films are far from the only influence but with all the bleached desert landscapes and crazy cars, not to mention locales like The Underdome and characters such as Mad Mel (in the original game) it’s hard to miss the allusion. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if the success of Fury Road has played a part in Lionsgate’s announcement coming just now. But what does the success of that film mean for Borderlands? I’m not sure to be honest.
On the one hand, it’s good because Fury Road is not a sanitised watch. Films don’t need to be violent to be good but too many action films suffer from the need to get a 12A certificate in order to maximise revenue – which can mean cleaning things up to an extent that impacts negatively on the flavour of the brand. Borderlands is dark: it’s gory yes but under the madcap veneer that’s quite a lot that’s dark psychologically too. I like how it cuts from quirky humour and throwaway gags to some quite wrenching reveals: for example, the echo log snippets that show badly the corporations treat both their employees and the Pandoran inhabitants. The games also feature several characters with severe mental health problems (Krieg and Tannis spring to mind, but they aren’t the only ones). Both get some very funny lines and are a source of humour, but the games don’t entirely trivialise their suffering. Indeed, I think that the jokes just serve to enhance the contrasting gut-punch impact of other scenes that hint at what these characters have actually been through to make them like they are. Fury Road handles this kind of material so well, I’m thinking particularly of the scene with Nux and his tumors. So I hope the success of Miller’s film will give the directors of Borderlands the courage not to shy away from darker moments and to make it a 15 rather than a 12A.
It sounds like Lionsgate are aware that this isn’t a franchise that shouldn’t be cleaned up too much. Co-Chairs Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger are quoted as saying “The ‘Borderlands’ games don’t pull any punches, and we’ll make the movie with the same in-your-face attitude that has made the series a blockbuster mega-franchise.” So that’s promising, although I would have been so much more on board if they’d said “the same SHOOT ME IN THE FACE attitude.”
At the same time, I wonder if the film could be affected by a need to avoid too many direct comparisons to Fury Road (because lets face it, it would really have to go some for those comparisons to be anything other than unflattering). This might mean a conscious choice to eschew the most Mad Max looking environments. The dust bowl may be the most classic Pandoran landscape, but the games do feature other terrain: mountains, factories, even moonscapes and space stations. Among my favourite levels are the Eridium Blight and the Caustic Caverns, both of which are great sci-fi dystopian landscapes, combining industrial facilities with polluted landscapes and unique alien life. There’s no doubt that the general Borderlands aesthetic is pretty Mad Max (dystopian diesel punk) but emphasising the sci-fi elements of Pandora would be one way the film could forge a more visually unique identity.
The games also have that wonderfully stylish cell-shaded look with the heavy black edging. I’d love to see some element of this carried in to the cinema. To go all the way with this I guess you’d have to do something similar to the techniques used for A Scanner Darkly (animation over digital footage), although given that film was unsuccessful in the box office, I’d be surprised if any producers were too keen to retread that path. Borderlands cosplayers have shown that the right costumes and make-up can go a long way to recreating the aesthetic of the game in real life: check out the awesome fan film Home Sweet Sanctuary. I hope that a this kind of gritty, stylised design would be maintained and not sacrificed to lens flare and shininess on a Hollywood type budget.
Plot and Characters
Borderlands games have generally been big on style and flavour but rather light on plot and character development; although Telltale Games’ phenomenally good Tales From the Borderlands series is showing that the Pandoran milieu can easily support a richer and more nuanced narrative that doesn’t just involve face-shooting and gun-looting. Two things are notable about Borderlands when it comes to characterisation. Firstly, its NPCs are much more richly developed than any of its player characters: Moxxi, Zed, Marcus, Scooter, Tannis and yes even Claptrap (although he makes the transition to player character in The Pre-Sequel), I know so much more about these characters than any of the figures I’ve played as. So I would hope any film version would make good use of this pre-established cast.
The second notable thing about Borderlands characterisation is that the person who has had by far the most complex development is a villain. I’m talking of course about Handsome Jack. I thought it was a brave move to make The Pre-Sequel all about the villain, but Jack has the depth and devilish charisma (supported by some great voice work from Dameon Clarke) to carry it off. A lot of Hollywood films give their villains short shrift by not bothering to develop them at all beyond “grah I’m evil I want to rule the world BECAUSE I’M EVIL.” Remember Malekith in Thor The Dark World? I barely do, and that’s a big part of the problem. Christopher Eccleston is a great actor but he was so underused in that film – as have been many actors in bad guy roles. Handsome Jack is as beguiling as he is despicable and I hope any Borderlands film would not shy away from giving him the extensive screen time he deserves. Traditionally, Hollywood likes its easily definable goodies and baddies so I hope Lionsgate will remember that while Jack may be the out and out villain, this is very much a franchise of shades of grey and most of the vault hunters are hardly what you’d call goodly either.
Axton: don’t get me wrong, I love Axton (he’s my go-to player character in the second game) but we all know how Hollywood loves their macho white guy protagonists. As most of the Borderlands player characters are fairly blank slates I fear that Axton is the one who could most easily be made into a really generic hunk of muscles. So part of the danger involves the loss of the few interesting aspects of Axton’s character that the games do give us: his bisexuality, his bitterness about his wife leaving him, and his weirdly over familiar relationship with his turret – none of which quite fit the (boring) generic hero mold. But the bigger danger is that the film would be could be made just another generic action hero flick, focusing too much on Axton, the safe bet for a white male lead, rather than, say, foregrounding a black actor as Roland. If they did go down the Roland route it would be a great chance for the film to break what is often described as Hollywood’s last taboo, depicting interracial couples, especially a black man with a white woman but I fear that it’s far more likely the film will be all about Axton vs Jack. Although who the Borderlands movie really needs as its protagonist isn’t Axton or Roland but any one of the games’ great female characters.
Borderlands women: a real strength of this franchise are its women: Lilith, Maya, Moxxi, Gaige, Ellie, Athena they are strong, they are distinctive, they are survivors. So many films relegate female characters to the roles of love interest, eye candy, generic mother, or damsel in distress so I sincerely hope any Borderlands movie will avoid doing this. If this movie doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test but totally smash it, then there will something extremely wrong. If there’s any other way this film ought to take a leaf out of Fury Road‘s book it is by focusing on a female protagonist who is defined by her skills and strength rather than her sexiness (although badassery is sexy!)
Which brings me to my final anticipated ”danger zone”: Mad Moxxi. She is almost as iconic a Borderlands staple as Claptrap, but of all the game’s characters she is the one who I fear has the greatest potential to be ruined by a Hollywood makeover. It would be so easy to make her appear as a one note eye-candy character rather than as the tough survivor and shrewd businesswoman she really is. I love how the games gradually reveal how much of Moxxi’s hyper-sexualised persona is a carefully calculated act. As Lilith notes of Moxxi in The Pre-sequel: “she’s got lots of layers, like an onion made of boobs.” Done right, Moxxi could be a smart and enjoyable addition to the cast, filthy, yes, but in a fun, knowing way, offering a commentary on how sex sells but ensuring you’re laughing with her. Or, like too many female roles in film, she could end up being a just a soft-core porno poster girl offering a far less empowered demonstration of how sex sells cinema tickets.
Things I want to see
Guns! One way this film could provide a real visual treat while also honoring its video game heritage in a non-tedious way is with its treatment of the guns. It would be great if the designers really go to town on the gun designs: I want to see the craziest, pimped up quadruple barreled elemental weapons from the game in all their day-glo glory. That said, I don’t want this to be a Michael Bay movie (one beloved franchise mauled by that director is enough thank you), people should do stuff other than just shoot things, but whenever things do get shot I want to see some super distinctive guns. And speaking of Bay if they can’t find a way to work in a Michael Bay spoof scene featuring Mr Torgue then there’s no justice in the world.
Robots! Kind of goes without saying really. I can’t imagine they’d make a Borderlands film without Claptrap in it. He needs to be there, but like any strong flavour he needs to be used with care. While often hilarious he is also annoying as hell. Claptrap could be used to change the tone, and to let the movie go to some pretty dark places (as the games do) without becoming too bleak overall but he could easily outstay his welcome so I hope the director will reign him in and not let him do a Jar Jar. But Claptrap isn’t the only robot in the franchise. I hope the film will include some others. I like the way that even the mass produced Loaderbots seem quite individualistic and sentient: there are so many characterful robots over the course of the games’ levels, it would be fun to see more of these on the big screen.
Dr. Patricia Tannis! I already mentioned Tannis but she really is one of my favourite characters in the game and I’d love to see her on the big screen. Many of Tannis’ lines in the games really balance on that knife edge of simultaneous hilarity and horror, and that’s the kind of tone I’d like to see the movie adopt: action packed black humour really. Make it happen Lionsgate, and please don’t mess it up. And take note, I am available to play Tannis if required: I can bring my own costume too (well, getting there anyway!) 😉
So that was a whole lot of hope, fear and completely idle speculation, but let’s not stop there! What are your thoughts on the subject? Can you think of any actors who’d be a good fit for any potential roles? Let us know in the comments or over on our Facebook or Twitter.