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Who's your Big Daddy?: A deep-ish dive into BioShock's long journey to the big screen

The story of Rapture's chance at a big-budget movie goes back almost 15 years.

By Josh Weiss
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Netflix is about to feel the pressure (atmospheric pressure, that is) of turning 2K's beloved BioShock video game franchise into a feature-length movie.

The streaming giant, which has partnered up with 2K and Vertigo Entertainment for the upcoming project, is not the first studio to try its hand at adapting the ghostly sunken city of Rapture and the plethora of maritime monsters it contains.

Attempts on making a blockbuster BioShock movie go all the way back to 2008, just a year after the first game in the popular series was released to critical acclaim and an estimated three million units sold. Everything about the title — from its murky setting, to its striking visuals, to its retro-based world-building — seemed tailor made for the big screen.

Universal Pictures was first to the punch in May 2008, scooping up the film rights and tapping Pirates of the Caribbean's Gore Verbinski to direct. Skyfall and Penny Dreadful vet John Logan was hired to write the Plasmid-injected screenplay.

The movie, which seemed to be a sure bet, stalled out a year later while still in pre-production due to rising budget concerns. With a hefty price tag of $160+ million, the film entered "a holding pattern" as the studio explored cheaper production locations abroad. Verbinski eventually moved on to make Rango for Paramount Pictures, vacating the role of director, but staying on as a producer. His replacement came in the form of 28 Weeks Later director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who came across similar obstacles that also forced him to bow out. He confirmed he was no longer involved during a press roundtable in 2012 (via IndieWire).

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Appearing at a BAFTA event in 2013, BioShock creator Ken Levine admitted (via Eurogamer) that he was the one to personally pull the plug after the budget was slashed to $80 million and a new director brought into the fold. 

"They brought another director in, and I didn't really see the match there — and 2K's one of these companies that puts a lot of creative trust in people," he said, though it's unclear if he was referring to Fresnadillo or a third name. "So they said: 'If you want to kill it, kill it.' And I killed it."

He continued: "It was weird, as having been a screenwriter, begging to do anything, and then killing a movie on something you'd worked on so much. It was saying I don't need to compromise — how many times in life do you not need to compromise? It comes along so rarely, but I had the world, the world existed and I didn't want to see it done in a way that I didn't think was right. It may happen one day, who knows, but it'd have to be the right combination of people."

Speaking with Collider in 2021, Verbinski opened up about his plans for the doomed adaptation, revealing that it fizzled out because he envisioned it as a super expensive R-rated film that stayed true to the game's Mature 17+ rating. It might've worked, too, had Zack Snyder not failed to bring home the bacon that same year with an R-rated comic book adaptation of DC's Watchmen, which cost $130 million.

"I think, Watchmen had just come out right before that or something," Verbinski recalled. "So, there was a little bit of, 'These movies need to be PG-13. If they cost that much, they need to be PG-13.'"

Verbinksi went on to describe the overall experience as a "glorious waste of time," while extolling the storytelling advantages of the first BioShock game.

"It's got a great narrative flow," he explained. "It's got a sort of untrustworthy narrator. Again, that was one that I went to John Logan with, and he really responded to the dramaturgical aspect of the story. So, we spent a lot of time adapting the script. Obviously, the big plane crash was a huge set piece, the entry into that world. There was a lot of story boarding, a lot of pre-vis. There was playing with how to have both endings. I don't know if you're familiar with the game but dissecting that feint to the happy ending. And then, still having the unleashed version of the ending. We were trying to achieve that, which was really exciting. Where if you watch the movie, you could get both. The set piece thing to me... I don't like generic action if there's not story through line."

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After making the R-rated A Cure for Wellness over at 20th Century Fox in 2016, the filmmaker seemed a little more optimistic about an expensive, adult-oriented project receiving the green-light from a major studio. While A Cure for Wellness bombed at the box office in March 2016, a different R-rated Fox property, Tim Miller's Deadpool, did gangbusters the previous month.

"I think things have changed and maybe there will be another chance," Verbinski wrote during a Reddit AMA in 2017. "But it's very difficult when you're eight weeks away from shooting a movie you really can see in your head and you've almost filmed the entire thing, so emotionally you're right at that transition from architect to becoming a contractor and that will be a difficult place to get back to."

A slew of concept art said to be created for the ill-fated adaptation has washed up on the shores of the internet over the last 14 years. Until Netflix's announcement earlier today, however, many fans simply assumed that a BioShock movie had already sank to the deepest depths of development hell, never to be heard from again.

Thanks to the advent of streaming submersibles, the title will be saved from its state of eternal drowning. One might call that a Rapture-ous turn of events.

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