What works as a series of video game cutscenes doesn’t necessarily work as a feature film. The Ratchet & Clank movie is living proof.
“The movie is going to be amazing,” I thought to myself as I played through the excellent film-based Ratchet & Clank game earlier this month. Snippets from the movie sprinkled between the rock-solid platforming and shooting action the series is known for gave me hope that the feature film, released this weekend in theaters nationwide, would be just as exciting as the game that spawned it.
Those hopes have been thoroughly dashed.
Yesterday I sat in a theater for an hour and a half, and I wasn’t excited at all. I didn’t smile much. I laughed out loud once at a stupid joke aimed at film buffs that the movie’s target audience likely wouldn’t understand. The sole child in the theater (there were only four people including myself at the 12:45 PM showing I attended) seemed to enjoy himself well enough, which is great. I mostly focused on keeping my hands from twitching, craving the elements that separate a great game from a mediocre movie.
The Ratchet & Clank movie closely follows the plot of the recently-released game, which is a real problem for fans of the franchise that ran out and picked up the PlayStation 4 exclusive on day one. They already know the plot. They’ve already experienced a superior version of the events that play out. There is no surprise here.
Setting the game aside for a moment, the Ratchet & Clank movie is a well-executed if relatively unoriginal piece of entertainment. We have a hapless character that dreams of being a hero. He becomes a hero, but his haplessness gets him into trouble and he experiences doubt. Ultimately he overcomes his doubts and becomes the hero he is destined to be. Roll credits.
It’s the same story that’s played out in animated films for ages, only this time the hero is a furry alien accompanied by a defective robot attempting to foil the plans of an evil corporation that’s tearing apart planets in order to build a perfect planet from the parts.
For parents looking to distract their children for a couple of hours, Ratchet & Clank is fine. It’s got slapstick humor, a by-the-numbers animated film script and plenty of bright colors to keep tiny human brains occupied. As Io9's Charlie Jane Anders put it, it will keep your kids distracted and you won’t claw your face off.
For fans of Insomniac’s video game series, the clawing off of faces isn’t off the table.
Mild Movie Spoilers Follow
In the original Ratchet & Clank game, the titular Lombax lived alone on the planet Veldin, making a living as a mechanic while dreaming of one day exploring the galaxy. When Ratchet rescues a defective warbot that crash lands on Veldin the two embark on a mission to save the galaxy from the machinations of the evil Chairman Drek.
In the Ratchet & Clank movie, Ratchet is an idiot mechanic living with a crotchety mentor (John Goodman). In his first major scene Ratchet’s gatuitous and uneccessary souping up of an elderly customer’s ship nearly gets the both of them killed. He’s a bit of a moron.
Instead of exploring the stars, Ratchet dreams of joining the Galactic Rangers, a crack unit of intergalactic police. Tryouts for a newly-opened spot on the team are held on Veldin but the Lombax is turned away, told he doesn’t have what it takes.
As someone who has played through the most recent game, this is where the movie lost me. In the game Ratchet goes through an extended obstacle course (which also serves as a tutorial). By the time he’s jumped every jump and defeated every opponent it feels like he’s supremely qualified for the position. When Captain Qwark, the Galactic Rangers’ most popular (and most pompous) member turns him away, it feels completely unfair.
In the movie there is no obstacle course. We see Ratchet arrive at the tryouts. Then we see him turned away. It’s still cruel, but it’s nowhere near as potent and telling a moment.
It’s a problem that repeats itself throughout the film. An obstacle is put in the heroes’ way, and instead of spending a half-hour working through a level with bits of exposition along the way, the movie skips right to the resolution. A pivotal encounter in an enemy stronghold is reduced to a self-aware montage. A moment that was a major boss fight in the game is barely a blip in the movie.
This compressed experience neatly demonstrates one of the problems with video game movies. There’s no video game. Cutscenes can add depth and scope to a video game’s characters and setting, but it’s the controlling of those characters in those settings that endear them to us.
Take the relationship between the titular characters, Ratchet and Clank. In games the intergalactic odd couple spend countless hours exploring new worlds, battling countless enemies side by side (or in this case back to back). That a strong friendship forms between the two makes perfect sense.
The movie attempts to form that same bond over the course of 90 minutes, and it falls completely flat. They’re friends because the movie title is Ratchet & Clank.
Maybe I would have enjoyed the Ratchet & Clank movie had I played through the entire plot three weeks prior, but I doubt it. When it comes to filling the space between cutscenes, I’ll take hours of excellent gameplay over recycled jokes and predictable humor any day.