After years of false starts and being trapped in development hell, it seems the BioShock movie is finally becoming a reality. Netflix has snatched up the rights to this iconic sci-fi shooter franchise, and the movie now has a director in The Hunger Games’ Francis Lawrence.
Unfortunately, if the past several decades have taught us anything, it’s that great gaming source material doesn’t automatically translate to great movies. If Netflix wants to escape the video game movie curse, there’s one critical rule to follow. The BioShock movie shouldn’t be a direct adaptation of the original game. Instead, it should be a prequel. Here’s why a prequel movie stands a better chance of doing justice to the games.
What Would a BioShock Prequel Be About?
The nice thing about the original BioShock is that it leaves plenty of room to explore the events leading up to the game. BioShock is set in 1960, with a plane crash survivor named Jack stumbling across the underwater city of Rapture. Once intended to be a monument to man’s ingenuity and unlimited potential, Rapture has instead become a dilapidated ruin infested by Splicers – humans addicted to a rare, gene-altering substance known as Adam. BioShock becomes the story of Jack’s struggle to navigate Rapture, uncover the secrets behind its decaying walls and come to terms with his own connection to the city and its founder, Andrew Ryan.
While the game slowly fills in the backstory of Rapture through dialogue and various recordings left behind by survivors, players never really get a chance to see the city in its prime or the terrible massacre on New Year’s Eve 1958. That’s where the movie can come in. Rather than focus on Jack himself, the movie could center around Ryan and other key figures who helped make this impossible city happen.
The movie could show us Ryan as a younger and more idealistic figure, a man determined to prove that a society free from the constraints of government and religion can achieve utopia. It could also focus on his nemesis Frank Fontaine, a gifted con artist who sees Rapture as an opportunity for the biggest score of his life, and Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum, a Nazi collaborator who finds a shred of redemption in protecting her adopted children. The movie could also spotlight the many characters who are caught in the middle of that feud, watching a once-promising city devolve into chaos and ruin.
That has all the makings of a compelling prequel. It’s also a film that could stand alongside the games rather than try to rehash the original’s plot. This is a story that’s also been chronicled in the 2011 novel BioShock: Rapture. But with a franchise like this, it’s one thing to read about the past, and another to actually see that story come to life.
BioShock: The Problem With Jack
The prospect of a direct adaptation of the original BioShock isn’t terribly appealing. For one thing, there’s the inherent challenge of trying to cram a 10-15 hour gaming experience into a 2-hour film. It can be done, but not without losing a lot of the flavor and the fun of soaking up the world of Rapture.
But there’s a more specific problem when it comes to adapting BioShock. As a protagonist, Jack simply isn’t very compelling. He’s the quintessential first-person shooter hero – a figure who says little and shows no outward signs of emotion. In fact, he only has one instance of spoken dialogue in the entire game.
None of that is meant to be an indictment of the game. The decision to make Jack a faceless, mute protagonist is very intentional. And while the movie may seek to flesh out Jack as a character and give him more personality, that inherently works against the purpose of Jack and his unique role in the Rapture conflict.
More than once, 2022 has shown us the perils of trying to adapt iconic video game characters in live-action. Netflix’s Resident Evil series debuted to middling reviews (though IGN’s Taylor Lyles gave Season 1 a 7), with the show’s off-kilter approach to RE mainstay Albert Wesker drawing particular criticism.
Paramount+’s Halo series has also proved divisive among fans. That series embraces its status as a standalone adaptation set in an alternate timeline, embellishing the back-story for Pablo Schreiber’s Master Chief and even repeatedly showing the character’s unmasked face and taking other unexpected storytelling liberties.
Both shows deserve credit for attempting to carve their own, respective paths with these franchises. But in Resident Evil’s case, at least, those changes did nothing to help the show build an audience or stave off cancellation. Gamers don’t take easily to seeing their favorite heroes and villains transformed. It’s tough to imagine a scenario where a reimagined version of Jack is going to fare well with hardcore BioShock fans.
Jack is supposed to be a thin sliver of a character. He’s specifically meant to be an enigma and a figure on whom the player can project their own motivations and choices. Therein lies the problem. BioShock is fundamentally a game about choice and free will. Throughout the game, players are forced to choose whether to be merciful when dealing with the Adam-harvesting Little Sisters or to kill them and reap the extra rewards. Those choices ultimately determine which of the two possible endings will come to pass. There’s also the one, pivotal moment near the end of the game where the player is robbed of their free will.
BioShock needs a certain degree of interactivity to succeed. However, that’s not an element that translates to film. Better the Netflix movie focus on a story with a predetermined beginning and ending.
Building the BioShock Multiverse
There are currently three main games in the BioShock series, along with a handful of expansions. There’s clearly room for Netflix to build an entire franchise, and no doubt that was part of the streamer’s motivation in acquiring the rights in the first place.
Obviously, the first movie needs to focus more on telling a compelling story than laying the groundwork for sequels and spinoffs. Still, the hope is that the film will include some Easter eggs and nod to the larger BioShock multiverse. A prequel movie offers plenty of potential in that regard.
For one thing, we’d love to see Sofia Lamb as a secondary character in the movie. The main antagonist of BioShock 2, Lamb is retroactively established as a major power in the pre-fall Rapture. It would be nice to see her more smoothly integrated into this world.
The movie could also work in some of the mythology introduced in BioShock Infinite and its expansions. Infinite features many of the same elements as the first two games – a remote, technologically advanced city ruled by a fanatical leader, warring factions made up of genetically modified citizens, etc. Initially, Infinite seems to be telling a story wholly separate from that of its predecessors. But over time it becomes apparent the underwater city of Rapture and the floating city of Columbia are linked through the power of the multiverse.
The BioShock Infinite DLC “Burial at Sea” bridges the gap between the two universes by placing Infinite protagonists Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth within the walls of Rapture itself. Along the way, players learn more about how Rapture devolved into the underwater hell it became. The movie could easily work elements of “Burial at Sea” into its story. In a multiverse story that’s all about free will and universal constants, Elizabeth herself could become the one common thread linking every BioShock adaptation together.
For more on the world of video game movies, see the first look teaser for HBO’s The Last of Us series and brush up on every video game movie and series in the works.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.
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Author: Jesse Schedeen