For decades, Hollywood producers have been scouring the IP mines for that breakthrough video game to adapt, little heeding the proper flock of canaries. The 2000s in particular was a graveyard of once-promising franchises, including some of the most recognizable titles like Doom and Silent Hill, and who could forget the terrible reign of one Uwe Boll? At one point or another, the infamous director was linked to just about every game, from Metal Gear Solid to Warcraft. At one point, there were rumours (which Boll has denied) that his idea for Nintendo’s flagship Metroid included Jessica Simpson. With that prospect in mind, a wild alternative is suddenly logical: John Woo’s Metroid. This was almost a reality back in the mid-2000s but fizzled out before the cameras started rolling (in slow-motion, with doves). Would John Woo’s take on the intergalactic bounty hunter have been better than the Boll pantheon? Yes, but it’s a long way from “better” to “good.”
What Is ‘Metroid’ About?
Theoretically, Metroid should cleave to the cinematic form like, well, a Metroid. The original NES game debuted the same year as the film Aliens, and the game franchise has long taken inspiration from the venerable sci-fi horror series. The title “Metroid” refers not to the protagonist, the robotic Samus Aran, but to a parasitic alien that latches onto unsuspecting victims, like a facehugger. One of the villains is called Ridley, after the director of Alien, Ridley Scott. Finally, and most importantly, that robot Samus – or so players thought back in 1986 – removes its helmet to reveal a woman! Inspired by Ellen Ripley, Samus was one of the first playable women in games and remains an icon to this day. However, when the ingredients of Metroid move past these Western roots, themselves based in a tradition of science fiction, the franchise takes on a bizarre pallor increasingly resistant to adaptation. Metroids may be floating alien parasites, but in-universe, the term “Metroid” means “ultimate warrior,” as designated by a species of intelligent bird aliens called the Chozo, who raised Samus after her homeworld was devastated by a space dragon. A space dragon named Ridley.
That sounds like something a screenwriter left out of a rejected Star Trek spec script. Worse, it may not even be true. Any description of the Metroid story is cobbled together from a variety of contradictory sources over the span of nearly four decades. Where canonicity doesn’t unite the games, manga, and instruction manuals, each piece was created by men who necessarily prioritized gameplay. And “men” is specific in this instance, because if men knew how to write women, why is Samus a silent protagonist? Why, when she did start speaking in the game Metroid: Other M, were fans horrified? Was Samus truly raised by birds? Is she a silent, 6’3” warrior like in the original games or a submissive, complaining waif like in Other M? How was John Woo supposed to take all of this and turn it into something coherent, never mind good?
The History of John Woo’s ‘Metroid’
In 2004, he optioned the rights to the Metroid movie, and diplomatically assessed his situation by saying, “We are very fortunate that there is such an extensive amount of material to draw upon for the film, due to there being so many iterations of the game over the years.” That’s an understatement, and Woo is a director responsible for some of the most overstated movies in history. The legendary Hong Kong filmmaker behind The Killer and Hard Boiled gifted the world gun fu long before The Matrix and John Wick. His journey with video games ironically begins with Sega, which helped found his 2003 production company Tiger Hill. While their 2007 game Stranglehold bore John Woo’s name and Chow Yun-fat’s beautiful visage, the director had stepped back from games two years earlier, sending almost a dozen titles to cancelation, including a John Carpenter game and some sort of ninja MMO.
With nobody steering the ship, producer Brad Foxhoven took over Tiger Hill as president, but Stranglehold took precedence over the Metroid movie. The rights lapsed in 2007, and three years of development went into the vault. Foxhoven told this story in an interview with IGN, and the understandable disappointment coloring his recall is mismatched by the unfortunate film he appeared to be making. It was certainly a good time to capitalize on the success of Metroid, having made its early 2000s comeback with Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion, with more on the way, seemingly. To write the script, Tiger Hill hired David Greenwalt, a Whedonverse alum with credits on Buffy and Angel. The thought was that a character like Samus required a writer with experience writing strong women, apparently stopping short of a writer with experience being a strong woman.
The Challenges of Adapting ‘Metroid’
The problems didn’t begin with any individual vision but rather the complications that come from grappling with the ill-defined Metroid universe. What will the dialogue sound like for a character who spends most of her time alone? What motivates this so-called bounty hunter (a mistranslated job title that nonetheless stuck)? Is it money? With Tiger Hill asking these questions, Nintendo was hearing them for the first time. What works in games doesn’t necessarily work in movies, and vice versa. This is also Hollywood, where blockbusters are built on a single, well-worn template whose internalization by writers and audiences alike commissions certain creative avenues that may not be appropriate, welcome, or altogether legal. Describing the approach to Samus, Foxhoven told IGN, “We wanted to see her struggle, to be humbled, and to be forced to rise up against crazy odds.” It’s like he peered into his scrying orb and saw Metroid: Other M.
The idea was to dig the Metroid out of its shell, or membrane, and replace it with more palatable ideas and images. It’s the same insecurity about geek stuff that plagued the era’s comic book adaptations. Granted, all action movie heroes are supposed to struggle, but what if Metroid wasn’t just an action movie? What if the drama of Samus’s xenocidal journeys could be conveyed by means other than backstory and humility, all these things that never had a place in the games themselves? John Wick is great at drawing the audience into the heat of an action scene despite its indestructible protagonist, and John Woo practically invented that! (By tapping into older Chinese filmmaking traditions).
What Would John Woo’s Metroid Have Looked Like?
If John Woo directed the Metroid script that Foxhoven describes, it might have looked something like Appleseed: Ex Machina, an animated film that sees a blonde-haired soldier kick slide and fire a gun in the future. This cyberpunk Samus, Deunan Knute, is often subject to the clichés of Hollywood screenwriting when adapted to film, but the Woo-produced action in Ex Machina is stylish and over-the-top. It’s actually close to the acrobatics achieved by Samus in a later title like Metroid Dread, which elevates the already athletic alien killer to a goddess of the battlefield. She’s running along Kraid’s belly, dodging his spikes, parrying giant insects, and landing in anime-like action poses.
Released in 2021, Metroid Dread did a lot to unify the scattershot universe, turning the bird people into warring, hubristic clans and even imbuing the title itself with profundity. Not all Metroid games even feature Metroids, just one of many examples of how a story-lite game designed in the ‘80s will limit everything that comes later. The events of Dread see Samus, ever diffuse with her alien environment via constant contact and even infection, take on the properties of the parasite – in effect, she becomes a Metroid herself. This isn’t another story about a spacefaring warrior who seeks revenge for the scourge of her homeworld. It’s about a woman who hunts aliens by trade and has to reconcile that she is an alien. She’s always been an alien, closer in heritage to the birds than human beings, and eerily silent as a result. Her only friend in the galaxy? The baby Metroid. It may have taken 40 years, but there’s finally an access point to the Metroid saga, and it’s phenomenal.
It’s also no longer foolish to believe that an adaptation might take the scintillating developments of Dread and marry them to the visuals of Prime and the classic soundscapes of Super. After all, the miners struck paydirt with Castlevania – Metroid’s other half – and Nintendo is returning to film production after a long, mushroom-fueled absence. Unfortunately, while Hollywood grows more comfortable with the deep vein of geek favorites, it has also alienated the directors of old, who’ve retreated to prestige television. Already a long shot in film, Metroid would never be the next HBO flagship, following The Last of Us, of all things. In fact, Nintendo is mimicking the Marvel/Star Wars method for The Super Mario Bros. Movie with two directors making their feature debut. The popular interpretation, however true, is that filmmakers early in their careers are easier for producers to override in favor of a meta franchise direction. John Woo would’ve made a John Woo film, and, frankly, Uwe Boll would’ve made an Uwe Boll film. It’s likelier today that the proverbial Metroid movie is produced and even succeeds, but there’s no guarantee it’ll be human.