Council of Geeks asked the question and came up empty trying to name an actually good one. (They missed one, stay with me gentle reader.) And it's true that it's slim pickings as far as that goes. At best, video game movies are "okay" but not all that memorable (Tomb Raider? Angry Birds? Warcraft?), or else are nostalgic candy for certain generations (Super Mario Bros.? Mortal Kombat?). No one's actually arguing that these are objectively good, though some do achieve the level of cult film (Street Fighter?). And obviously, some have rated sequels, and even franchises (Resident Evil, Hitman).
But while you may have your favorites, none have achieved any kind of critical momentum. Is there hope? Plenty of studios are banking on making it happen. There are movies in development for Rampage, Minecraft, and Dragon's Lair, for example. And it's true that the superhero movie was once considered trash, and has found a way to win both at the box office and at the critical reception party.
The Council of Geeks argues that a video game movie can't easily be good because the medium has a quality that cannot be 'ported over: interactivity. When the source material puts you in the driver's seat, giving it away to a director and actors while you sit there passively actually REMOVES something from the franchise being adapted rather than adds to it. Interesting. That could certainly account for video game movies not really bringing in the gaming crowds they apparently cater to.
Of course, there are a lot of turkeys that don't need an explanation. Hollywood makes bad movies in all genres.
But I think part of it is also that so many of these films don't embrace their video game roots, or are ashamed of them (which is a criticism I've often levied at bad superhero movies). The dank Mario Bros. has nothing to do with the style of the classic game, for example. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has nothing to do with the games EXCEPT its animation style (and a weak philosophical thread I guess). Need for Speed could be any car movie, they're just trying to get name recognition. The more successful attempts (like the ones with sequels) have, I think, openly embraced the preposterous nature of their video game universes. My favorite of the lot, a much misunderstood crazy-ass fighting movie, D.O.A. Dead or Alive:
Even if you don't believe me about this undeniable classic, we KNOW good video game movies can be written and made because we've HAD them. Not licensed game adaptations, not yet, but video game movies nonetheless. I was watching TRON and TRON: Legacy this week, the first of which is not considered a video game movie because the arcade game was based on the film, not vice-versa, but it is most definitely a movie based around a video game (or several games). And both it and its sequel are generally better (and better regarded) than most video game adaptations.
(And even without that conceit, I think you could make a case that the Lego movies are partway video game movies at this point. Wreck-It Ralph. Scott Pilgrim. vs the World. All fine video game movies without drawing from a licensed source.)
Video game worlds started out pretty simple and limited, so exploring them on film required either complete invention to the point where it's not the game anymore, or a necessarily shallow story. They're more complex now, but if that's your thing, would you rather discover the story of Warcraft, Mass Effect, Fallout or Skyrm in a 2-hour movie, or through hours of game play? These may seem opaque to the non-gamer anyway, dooming the film in theaters. Film goers don't seem to want to explore video game worlds cinematically... unless they actually see themselves on screen.
At least, that's one theory. What do you think? Feel free to invalidate the entire thesis by defending your favorite video game movies if you have them!