Inevitably, Mass Effect has been optioned as a film project. It may never get off the ground, as with so many seemingly lucrative game-to-movie adaptations (see: Halo, World of Warcraft, and Bioshock for some high profile ones), but because it’s a franchise close to my heart I’d like to take some time to discuss casting and what I think are some key points to successfully adapting it.

I think you could make a really good mid-budget Mass Effect film, basically focusing on the core space-chase between Shepard and Saren with a few major set-pieces drawn from the game. You can do a lot of world-building through suggestion as opposed to exposition, something that has been adequately shown in good to great science fiction films especially in the last couple of years, examples including Gamer, Moon, and especially District 9.  Another obvious strategy is to pay attention to the various science fiction films and books which influenced Mass Effect in the first place. The important people should be watching Blade Runner and reading Ender’s Game for example.

FAIR WARNING, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT IN THE FOLLOWING:

The first thing to do is report some of the spurious information that’s floating around about who’s involved and at what stage this project is even at. IGN had a report back in May about this, telling us that Legendary Pictures has the rights. This is a company that does a lot of comic book adaptations and all around nerd-pleasing stuff. Some of their Greatest Hits are 300, The Hangover, Observe and Report, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, Where the Wild Things Are (!!!), and Inception (!!!!!!!!). However, they are also responsible for Clash of the Titans, Ninja Assassin, Jonah Hex and Superman Returns.  They are heavily in bed with Warner Bros. and I know that some of the tomfoolery involved with their output is probably as much WB’s fault as theirs. That said, they have more hits than misses and have helped bring out some of my favorite movies of the last few years, so there you go. Bottom line: Mass Effect could be in worse hands.

Their screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, is sort of an unknown quantity. I dunno what his script for I am Legend was like originally, but hopefully it was more like the awesome first half than the abortive second half. He also wrote Thor but nobody knows how that’s going to turn out. Because this is an adaptation, all you really need is someone who is savvy about what is key, what is good to have for fan good will without going too far with that, and thus what can be safely dropped. To mitigate the risk of stupid tampering with the core formula, three of the executive producers are Bioware guys (Casey Hudson who produced the game, as well as Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuck). This bodes well for we cynical fans who have so often watched as Hollywood botched adaptations of games, books, and comics. These guys will be protective over Mass Effect and hopefully will not be co-opted by “studio knows best” shenanigans that so often seem to plague these types of productions.

Oh how I do go on.

Now that the business of “who the fuck is even doing this?” is established, we can move on to something more fun: casting. Ooh! Well, more than just listing my fantasy cast I want to actually justify my choices. Observe as I do so!

First of all, let’s talk about Shepard because how they cast him, how they write him, etc is going to make or break this movie. Most people who play through Mass Effect will probably mix it up a bit as to how they have their Shepard act. Maybe they lean more to one side or try and play it realistic, with contextual reactions and choices winning out over trying to be consistently consistent. The two sides are Paragon and Renegade. In the game, you get to make choices which generally fall along these two lines. Paragon is a helpful, do-gooder route that’s sort of like the way Sorbo played Hercules in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Renegade has been called Jack Bauer in space and this is fairly accurate. Renegade Shepard is like Snake Plissken or other badasses who break the rules and get shit done. Not quite an anti-hero, but close.

I think the key here is to cast an actor who can do both. The best parts of both Mass Effect games in terms of the dialogue and cut-scenes are when Shepard gets to be a sarcastic badass. In the game, you supply all the angst and Shepard is often not a very angsty protagonist. If you leave it like that, you get a pretty one-dimensional “gritty movie anti-hero” who is going to seem boring to a lot of people especially since that archetype is very common right now. So you’re going to have to find a person who can get across the weight of what Shepard faces as well as the drama involved with some of the events of the game.

There is one clunky scene in Mass Effect where Shepard is reacting to the death of a comrade and whichever character he’s closest to comes to console him, potentially leading to some romantic catharsis. This is clunky in the game because it’s a rare moment where Bioware chose to take the path of least resistance and skip the part where the player gets to choose whether Shepard is tortured or cavalier. So one more time: you need a guy who can pull this off. Some players would probably play  a Shepard who was like “good riddance”, but such a character in a movie would alienate audiences. You can have a witty badass who breaks the rules, but he should also have a human side. An interesting character, even if they are of a type we’ve seen before, should be multi-dimensional even if cliched.

Now that sounds like I’m advocating that they make Shepard a boring archetype to keep things on an even keel given that the character is so largely informed by the person playing him. A film, obviously, is without that input. Even though you have to make Shepard well-rounded for him to anchor this kind of thing, you can get an actor who can provide nuances. For example, there are a set of different background options which translate to some specific reactions and options later in the game. They will need to choose some combination of these details. In the game, Shepard can be from a family of colonists, “spacers” or hail directly from Earth. He also has his military background, in which he was either the sole survivor of a battle gone wrong, a ruthless tactician, or a war hero who saved a bunch of people. I don’t have much of an opinion about how they should go about this, except that it’s obvious to me that they can draw some drama and characterization from contrasting Shepard’s “background” with the situations he finds himself in during the events of Mass Effect. For example, a Shepard from Earth might be less tolerant or more curious about aliens whereas one who was a “spacer” could be a bit more cosmopolitan and used to aliens. Since human vs. alien politics is a major theme of the game, it should be part of the texture of the film, especially given that half the supporting cast will be aliens. I do kind of think the movie Shepard should be either a sole survivor or ruthless soldier, giving the character something to either make up for or live up to and thus giving them some internal conflict to deepen the goings on.

A pretty unimportant detail is what “class” to make the movie Shepard. The supporting cast is largely made up of specialists who can showcase stuff like omnitools and biotic abilities and this is partly why you have them around. Shepard should be pretty straightforward, a soldier and natural leader who keeps all these personalities together. Not a superhuman. So I guess I would recommend they just stick to having the guy lugging guns around.

So now that I’ve talked about what they should do with the character, I need to figure out who I think would most ably handle the task. It’s not like Shepard is some super prestigious or tricky role, and if you look at some of the fancasting online there is a wide variety of nominations which seems to me strong evidence that a lot of different people could pull this off. But based on not only the look of the “default Shepard” in all of the promos as well as the character creation stage itself, there is only one candidate which has the right look while also embodying the characteristics I think are key:

Yes, none other than Matthew Fox!

As an apparent April Fool’s joke (coming before the Variety article which confirmed the rights had been sold to Avi Arad and Legendary Pictures), gamerant.com ran this article claiming that the guy was in serious talks, was Bioware’s favorite, yada yada yada. Even though it was a joke, it was believable enough and excellent enough to seem true. The cynics would immediately assume the studio would go after some hot young thing like Channing Tatum or Sam Worthington for this, but Matthew Fox is perfect and kind of left-field if only because people are still unused to actors jumping between TV and movies in a way that was career-death a few years back.

In Lost, he had six seasons to play a truly great protagonist, a man who was in turns compassionate, heroic, blind, self-righteous, and menacing. Jack was a peacemaker but also a man of action capable of being physically threatening and intimidating, which are necessary for this movie. Guy’s got chops too! Though Jack was often a very angst-ridden and emotional man, Mass Effect‘s Shepard will give him a chance to be a bit less showy with his softer side and bring a lot more badass. But while most people know him best from Lost it is actually his role in Speed Racer that makes me so sure he could pull this off beautifully. In Speed Racer, Racer X is a caricature and affectionate send-up of the exact kind of archetype Shepard represents. And even though Racer X is the deadly serious and imposing figure that he is in that movie, he’s also got a sense of humor. Matthew Fox pulls off a character that could have been eyes-rollingly bad and makes him incredibly watchable and even fun. This is essential to pulling off a Shepard for Mass Effect because above all else the guy has to be somewhat fun even if it’s just a few good quips now and then in an otherwise serious movie. Mass Effect shouldn’t be Indiana Jones the Space Adventure, but it shouldn’t be the fucking Star Wars prequels either. There is enough comic relief in the interplay between the characters even apart from Shepard to keep the movie from being too serious or melodramatic.

If nothing else, the Racer X outfit gives us an idea of what N7 armor could look like on Fox, who really is in pretty good shape these days.

Anyway, who knows if they’ll get Matthew Fox to do this. The cynic in me wants to resign itself to the likelihood that they get Sam Worthington who could be good in the role if he brings more Jake Sully and less Perseus. But I’m tired of seeing him in everything and he’s way too obvious for this. Channing Tatum could also be good if they want to skew younger, but why would they do that?

In the game, Shepard isn’t an old soldier yet but he’s definitely in the middling years of his career. He’s already had one big defining moment and should be in his mid to late 30’s. Casting some young golden boy doesn’t make sense for the character. Shepard should be a proven commodity just to make the Spectre thing work even. I’m sure they could reconfigure it that he is pulled into the Spectres right out of “the academy” but while they should take a couple of pages out of Star Trek‘s book (the JJ Abrams version, duh… more on this later), they don’t need to plagiarize it.

So keep Shepard a bit gray, please.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 OF THIS SERIES, I WILL BE PICKING UP WHERE I LEFT OFF BY DISCUSSING THE SUPPORTING CAST.

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