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What Ever Happened to the Mass Effect Movie?

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BY June 20, 2019
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Hollywood, a town filled with writers and directors possessed of captivating original ideas, loves a sure thing. So, when it comes time to develop a franchise film series, studios often go to already-established intellectual properties, like comics or video games. One of the largest problems when it comes to video game film adaptations is that games are usually lacking in a story that can both drive a game forward and fill a feature film. Yet, if any video game can do it, Mass Effect could. The four games in the series contain tens of hours of cutscenes and conversations, enough to rival the runtime of the total Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, a Mass Effect movie seems like a no brainer in an industry eager for franchises with massive built-in fanbases.

Except, more than a decade after developer Bioware sold the film rights, no movie has appeared at all. The sci-fi epic features a diverse cast of human and alien characters, a fully realized mythology, and a pretty interesting story at its heart. By this point they could have remade the game almost shot-for-shot, and even that would at least make its budget back in receipts. Of course, you only get one shot at a first impression. (Looking at you, Sonic.) So, it’s likely that the Mass Effect movie is stuck in development hell because they can’t get the story or the execution right. Still, whatever is happening with the Mass Effect movie is happening behind the scenes. Here’s all we know about this much-beloved franchise.

What is Mass Effect?

If you are searching for information about the Mass Effect movie, chances are you are already familiar with the series. Still, just in case, Mass Effect is both a game and a franchise that shares similarities with both Star Wars and Star Trek. Like the latter, the setting is the Milky Way galaxy some centuries into the future. Humans find ancient alien relics on Mars, which advances space exploration a great deal. At the edge of the solar system they discover a “mass effect relay,” which facilitates faster-than-light travel. The story follows a galactic special forces operative named Shepard and his or her allies. (The character can be male or female depending on player choice.) Over three games, players learn about the universe and the threat from “Reapers,” giant sentient robots that destroy all life ever 50,000 years or so.

Originally an Xbox 360 exclusive, this game and its sequels are now available on many different platforms. Along with the games, there have been comic books, novels, and other tie-in media. What makes the experience unique for players is that their characters choices affect the way the game’s story unfolds. For example, one alien character has a role in the first three games. However, the player can decide to kill that character about midway through the first game. Other decisions can affect how characters react to you or even what sort of government rules the galaxy. If a Mass Effect movie would have any problems to overcome, the extremely personalized experience is the biggest one.

The Mass Effect Movie and a Marvel Connection

In 2007, famed Marvel producer Avi Arad sat at a crossroads. After decades of trying to make Marvel a power-player Hollywood, the company was on the verge of producing its own films. Arad decided to leave the studio, making way for Kevin Feige, and he started his own company. Arad went on a bit of a shopping spree, snatching up the rights to a number of video games: Uncharted, Borderlands, Metal Gear, Mass Effect, and others. Then, despite his tireless efforts to get comic book films made, all of these properties went unproduced. In 2010, Legendary Pictures bought the rights and said the film would made with Warner Bros. handling distribution. Eventually, WB parted ways with Legendary, who then joined with Universal. Still, after a rotating cavalcade of writers, directors, and producers attached, the movie stalled.

The last we heard about the film came in 2013, when producers associated with the project promised it was still in development. Arad told gaming site Kotaku that these films can take six years to properly develop. That means that the potential release date could be sometime this year. Yet, with no announcements about cast or crew, and a crowded blockbuster film slate, that might not be the best idea. Still, of all the video game properties tied to Arad, Mass Effect seems like the easiest one to turn into a feature franchise that would appeal to both gamers, sci-fi fans, and action movie aficionados. In September, BioWare’s Casey Hudson released a promotional video teasing the future of the franchise. He did not mention any plans for a film. The movie seems to have vanished from everyone’s radar.

Why is the Mass Effect Movie Stalled?

With no comment from the people tied to the project, the reason for the Mass Effect movie delay is anyone’s guess. So, in lieu of actual information, let’s wildly speculate! It’s possible that the Mass Effect movie is so troubled that Legendary, Arad, Universal, and others have decided it is more trouble than it’s worth. A number of writers tried to tackle the project, including Thor’s Mark Protosevich and Morgan Davis Foehl. It also appears that the storytellers couldn’t decide on which story to tell. The first script, reportedly, was a straight adaptation of the first game. Deciding against that, the next reports suggested that the film would tell an original story but still feature Shepard and the crew of the Normandy. Yet, there might be another reason the project is on hold.

The most recent installment of the game, a new story and series called Mass Effect: Andromeda, is not a well-received game. Any plans for sequels are likely on hold at BioWare, or at least not slated for imminent release. The biggest problem with Andromeda was that the ambitiously large game was rushed and under-developed. Plagued by glitches, bad animation, and bugs, fans were largely disappointed. So, if they’re smart, the folks at BioWare will take their time putting together the next installment. Thus, movie plans might be on hold so that whatever the new game will be can tie in directly to the film. This would allow film actors to voice characters and tie the game’s story into the film’s story. A project like that could take far more than six years to accomplish. Done right, however, a hit movie and new “franchise-saving” game could generate huge profits.

What Should the Mass Effect Movie Be?

The key problem with any “bad” video game movie is that the narrative needs for a video game are much different than that of a film. In cases like Doom or, even, Super Mario Bros., the story was a foundational problem. Yet, Mass Effect does tell a very cinematic story, arguably one too large for a single or trilogy of films. Of course, a straight adaptation would not be as excited to fans familiar with the game. The movie would have to establish Shepard’s gender definitively, to say nothing about the other areas where player choice affects the story. So, it’s probably for the best if a Mass Effect movie avoided the Shepard character entirely. Yet, because the lore of the game is so rich, they could still tell a story that’s both familiar to fans and wholly original.

The first game begins after humans are already a part of the larger galactic community, albeit very new to the neighborhood. There are vague references throughout the entire series to “the First Contact War.” Humans encountered a lizard-like alien species known as the Turians. Naturally, they fought. Eventually, the other species in the Citadel, the galactic government hub, helped negotiate a peace, albeit fragile. This is a perfect story to launch a film franchise. It will have all of the elements the fans of the series love already, but it would also be very accessible to people who’ve never heard of it. Of course, that’s just one idea. There are dozens of elements that could be mined for feature film stories, if anyone ever wants to actually make this movie, that is.

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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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