With the release of Mass Effect Andromeda looming ever larger on the horizon, my mind has been pulled back into the orbit of EA’s most robust sci-fi setting, and I find myself wondering whatever happened to the long rumoured Mass Effect movie project. But before investigating its current status, I embarked down the long, troubled road that development of the film has traveled.
The film rights for Mass Effect were first optioned way back in 2008 by producer Avi Arad, the former chairman, CEO, and co-founder of Marvel Studios who left the comic giant to launch his own production studio in 2006. Arad has been tied to other upcoming film adaptations of video game properties, including takes on Uncharted, Infamous, Metal Gear Solid, and Borderlands but as yet, his only credit for a produced video game project is on three seasons of the animated series Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures.
The project lay dormant with Arad’s production company until May of 2010, when Legendary Pictures, the studio behind the Warcraft film and Pacific Rim, announced they’d acquired feature rights to the Mass Effect franchise and would be producing the film in conjunction with Warner Brothers. Legendary brought in-house producers Jon Jashni and Thomas Tull onboard to shepherd the project alongside Arad, and hired writer Mark Protosevich to develop a script. Bioware also provided Casey Hudson, Ray Muzyka, and Greg Zeschuck as technical advisors and executive producers (all of whom have now departed that studio for other projects).
In 2011, a pre-production panel was held at San Diego Comic Con where Hudson and Protosevich talked in broad terms about the plot of the film and Legendary’s desire to avoid the trend of awful video game adaptations. Protosevich talked up the Mass Effect universe and its deep lore, comparing the series to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars in terms of the richness of its setting. He said that other filmmakers attempting to adapt games to the screen had focused too much on action and flashy visuals, but that Mass Effect provided the narrative landscape required for a feature film.
Protosevich, best known for the I am Legend screenplay and for writing 2011’s Thor, has since revealed the original vision for the film was a retelling of the first game’s story, Commander Shepherd’s pursuit of rogue agent Saren and his ancient galactic overlord, the reaper Sovereign. Protosevich produced several drafts of the script, but was eventually dismissed from the project in early 2012 and replaced by Morgan Davis Foehl, a relative newcomer. Protosevich has admitted that he wasn’t up to the task of adapting the “nine or ten hours” of narrative from the first game into a tight, digestible film, and that he’s probably out of the adaptation business for good.
After Protosevich’s replacement, Legendary announced that they’d be pursuing a different direction and telling an original story around Commander Shepherd and his crew. However, few plot details have been forthcoming in the wake of the decision to scrap Protosevich’s script. Foehl, who has several assistant editor credits on his resume but fairly limited writing experience, was tapped because he’s an avowed fan of Mass Effect and because he has some experience writing action and espionage, both of which are set to factor heavily into any Mass Effect adaptation.
In 2013, Legendary parted ways with Warner Brothers, due in larger part to the desire on the Warner’s part to wholly own its DC superhero properties, like the Batman and Superman films, which in the past had been half Legendary’s. Legendary instead coupled with Universal, signing a long term co-production and co-financing deal, and announced that distribution of the Mass Effect film would fall on Universal, should it be released.
So, where does that leave us? What’s the current state of the Mass Effect film? The tragic reality is that we have no idea, outside of a vague promise by Casey Hudson in March of 2013 that it would be “really special,” and a brief reference producer Avi Arad made in an interview with Kotaku that same year.
“It's a big idea, that we, humans, are the least developed, the least trusted, it's an interesting mirror image of our world, we are the aliens now. Love the project, it's getting there, it's been a lot of work; some movies take five, six years before they're ready.”
That suggests that a release date for Mass Effect may be next year, or possibly as late as 2019 or beyond. We still have no announcements regarding production, director, cast or crew, and when the suggestion that a 2016 mystery movie co-produced by Legendary and Universal might be Mass Effect collapsed, even the most die-hard faithful lost hope (and interest). Our best hope now is that Andromeda, as well as the trilogy of books slated to be released in conjunction with the game, will stir up some fresh interest in Hollywood around an adaptation...or at least provoke someone at Legendary to finally put a bullet in the project, once and for all.