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Mass Effect: The merits and pitfalls of a film franchise

Mass Effect is a property near and dear to many gamers’ hearts. Mine most definitely included. The series hit the scene in 2007, already stocked with a massively deep mythos, as the brainchild of game designer/writer Drew Karpyshyn. Drew rose to prominence as the lead writer of one of the most acclaimed RPGs of all time, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. After demonstrating such a clear grasp of what made the Star Wars franchise great without the benefit of culturally iconic characters like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, and Han Solo, I can’t think of a person more equipped to tackle a brand new sci-fi franchise in the same vein as Star Wars. And tackle it he did.

From the moment the game opened, it was clear that this series wasn’t trying to be anything other than itself. This wasn’t a re-skinned Star Trek or Star Wars. This was something new entirely. The game quickly threw several nuanced different races at us, and for me, someone who is often intimidated or turned off by being dropped into a whole new sci-fi world like that, it just worked.

I immediately got a feel for the Asari. A blue-skinned, technologically and culturally advanced species on whose coattails most other races rode. Armed with an air of superiority, perhaps well-earned, the Asari appear to be the peak of evolution in the galaxy they inhabit. I also grasped the overriding personality of the Turian race. A militarist, battle-tested race who largely resents humanity for its rapid rise to cultural significance in the galaxy. The Quarians represented the sickly kid in your fourth grade class. Technological geniuses virtually trapped in protective suits because of their poorly-adaptive immune systems, several of the Quarians you meet throughout the series are bullied by members by other races. The Krogan are a species virtually devoid of culture or science. They defy evolution solely on their extreme military prowess and rapid-breeding. The Salarians are characterized by their short lifespans and genius intellect. They often are driven by cold, rational calculation rather than emotion. They stand as a stark contrast to other races who accomplish much less with significantly longer lives. Batarians are almost universally viewed as ruthless pirates and thugs. The vast majority of Batarians never leave their home system as a result of isolationist ideals, and are as such colored by the reputation of the “few rotten apples” that venture out and cause trouble.

Ironically, these races and the views we’re initially presented of them act as sort of a macrocosm of our own, real-life planet Earth. Races are painted with a broad brush and our perceptions of them can radically shift as time goes on.

This is an extremely deep, yet accessible universe. I’m confident that it could translate on film successfully. What I’m less confident in are the film executives at Legendary Pictures making the right decisions to give this the best chance to succeed. Early returns, in my opinion... are not great. Let’s start with what we know. This information comes from a panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2011, and the FAQ Legendary Pictures put up to supplement it.

  • We know the film will focus on Commander Shepard and his story
  • Legendary Pictures is “working closely” with Bioware on the adaptation
  • The movie will focus on a male Commander Shepard
  • No casting decisions have been made
  • Legendary Pictures is not yet thinking “trilogy” and is focusing on making a great adaptation of the first game

Let’s go point by point.

Knowing that the film will focus on Commander Shepard will come as welcome news to most. It certainly seems like the safest course of action, given the success of the game franchise. Shepard and Mass Effect have generally become synonymous with one another, but we do know that the game franchise will continue without the character, and the series’ endeavors into other media have universally not included the character. That’s four novels, nine comic series, and one animated film. In fact, perhaps strangely to some, Bioware has made a concerted effort to not include Commander Shepard in other media. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the optional gender designation chosen by player (which I will get into more later on), and the wide-ranging choice given to the character. Bioware has created “canon” choices only when it has had to, such as the default game state when a player has not imported a previous game-save into a sequel. And that’s not even officially canon, just a necessity. It has wisely avoided leading any player to believe that any choice you’re faced with in-game had a correct, official answer. Shepard’s exploits in other media have only been referred to very peripherally so as not to tread on any player’s personal choices in their playthrough.

The trouble with this when it comes to a feature film is that now an official canon will be created, or at least it will be perceived that way. The beauty of the game series is the sometimes crushing decisions that need to be made by each player [insert red, blue or green ending joke here]. With a film, you risk taking away a crucial part of what makes the series great. It has the potential to turn into a cookie-cutter adventure story where the hero always does the right thing, always saves his friends, and always makes the right choice. Will Bioware and Legendary Pictures have the guts to do something truly new? Something novel and original? Can they successfully blend a half-Paragon and half-Renegade hero, or will the decision-makers deem that this kind of protagonist is not as marketable?

Next, we know that Legendary Pictures is “working closely” with Bioware. This sounds great, right? Well, it could be. But there are a couple possible pitfalls there. First off, just because Legendary says this doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s not like they’d say “nah, Bioware’s not involved at all, but we got this.” That’s just a PR nightmare. More importantly in my opinion, Drew Karpyshyn is not technically with Bioware anymore after leaving the company in February of 2012. Indications are he left amicably to focus on his own projects. That doesn’t mean he won’t be involved, of course, it’s just a possibility he won’t be. Karpyshyn’s lack of involvement certainly wouldn’t be an automatic death knell, I just know that I as a fan would feel more comfortable with his guiding presence given his role in getting me so invested after an hour or two of playing the original game. I was thrown into a complex universe, and found my footing very quickly due in large part to his writing. Karpyshyn has humbly stated in the past, though, that his role in the success of the series has always been overstated. Let’s hope so.

Legendary Pictures has (apparently) decided firmly that they will be featuring Commander Shepard in male form. What an uninspired decision! While this FAQ was from before things like the female-led Hunger Games were massive, mainstream blockbusters, it really feels to me like the time is now for a female action hero to strike in a big sci-fi epic like this. Add to that the fact that Jennifer Hale’s vocal take on the character is commonly regarded as of a higher quality than Mark Meer’s male take. She’s believable, and she speaks with authority. Now, I know it (likely) wouldn’t be Jennifer Hale donning the armor on the big screen adaptation, but there are plenty of Hollywood actresses who could pull it off. My personal pick would be Charlize Theron. She’s done sci-fi with Prometheus and is a good box office draw, and she’s old enough to believe she’s had a decorated military past. It’s just the right decision to have a female lead. Male-led action movies are done to death, and choosing a female lead would help further divert this film away from the cookie-cutter path it could so easily succumb to. Plus, it’s set far enough in the future that maybe humanity is past that whole “legislating women’s reproductive organs” thing. This is science fiction, after all.

On the subject of casting, the FAQ very clearly stated that no casting decisions have been made. I don’t think I can be the only one who has a hard time picturing (or hearing) anyone other than Seth Green and Brandon Keener portraying Joker and Garrus respectively. How about anyone other than Keith David playing Captain Anderson? We’ve all spent hundreds of hours with these characters and dozens of others. Along with that much time spent comes a kind of cementing of what those characters look like, sound like, act like, etc. in each of our minds. On the other side of the same coin, some of the voice actors don’t even remotely resemble the characters they play. I’m looking at you, Ashley Williams. Some can be cleaned up with CGI or prosthetics and some are probably lost causes. One thing is for sure, though: the casting for this movie will be a tall task and a potentially thankless job.

Finally, I believe it’s very encouraging that Legendary Pictures isn’t getting too far ahead of itself in terms of thinking about this as a full-on franchise just yet. While the threads for sequels were obviously there, the original Mass Effect game felt very much like it could stand on its own if need be. It was almost as if, with it being such a potentially risky intellectual property in an age of sequels and spin-offs where not many new intellectual properties ever get the chance to shine, Bioware wanted to make sure the game could stand proudly on its own if it wasn’t successful enough to spawn sequels. I think that’s also the right approach with the films. There’s much more story to tell, but let’s focus on making one solid, self-contained film that’s good enough to make people clamor for more.

There’s certainly no guarantee this series ever makes it to Hollywood. If or when it ever gets optioned, there will be a lot of mixed feelings, boycotts, and love-fests. But hey, even if it sucks, they can never take the games away from us.