The 8 Ball 02.05.13: The Top 8 Video Game-Inspired Movies
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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A couple of weeks ago End of Watch made its way to home video (you can read my review of it here). The police drama has been called a found footage-style film, but the truth is a little less boxed in than that. There are some elements of found footage in the handheld cameras and mockumentary format, but in fact David Ayer goes for more of a 360 degree look and for my money, sequences like the dashboard camera car chase and down-the-barrel shots make the film seem more inspired by video game conventions than by The Blair Witch Project. Ayer’s success with that inspired this week’s list. Few people would deny that a large majority (if not nearly all) of the movies directly based on video games are severely lacking in quality. However, there are films that have incorporated elements of video games either thematically or within the plot and have done so successfully. This week I thought I would look at the best of those.
Caveat: For the purposes of this list I cut any direct narrative adaptation of a video game. That means no Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, Silent Hill, et cetera. A film qualified for this list if it had substantial thematic or plot inspirations from video games.
Tron Legacy (2010)
Cloak & Dagger (1984)
First up on the list is one of the first films to take the concept of video games and insert it into a plot. The video game industry was growing quickly in the early 1980s and although in a lot of ways Hollywood was disdainful of it (check out Starz Inside: Hollywood Goes Gaming for more on that), they recognized an ability to use the technology as a new plot device. One of the most memorable of those is WarGames, the Matthew Broderick-starring film that saw him play David Lightman a computer hacker who takes his game to a new level when he graduates from changing his school grades to unwittingly hacking a US military supercomputer that is programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war. When David decides to play some games on the supercomputer, he inadvertently causes a national nuclear missile scare and nearly starts World War III. Viewed from a cynical standpoint, WarGames can be considered Hollywood’s attempt to crush a competing entertainment source by spreading fears about where video games may lead. But the fact of the matter is that the John Badham-directed film really doesn’t have that level of subtext in it and instead is just a supremely entertaining thriller that, while taking very obvious liberties, is far more accurate of a hacking-related film than many similar films since. Plus it gave us the iconic line, “How-About-A-Nice-Game-Of-Chess?” No thank you, WOPR, I would rather play Global Thermonuclear War.
Video games provide a means of escapism with more interactivity than films, which is a large part of their appeal. Who out there as a kid didn’t imagine themselves as a pilot in their favorite space shooter (or a solider among the Call of Duty frontlines, a troll smashing their way through Azeroth and so on)? The Last Starfighter, released at the height of the first video game boom, took those fantasies and put them on the screen. Lance Guest stars in this charming little flick as Alex Rogan, a teenager living in a trailer park who dreams of bigger things. Little does he know that those bigger things will come by virtue of his favorite hobby: namely, playing “Starfighter,” an arcade game. As it turns out, the game is a training simulator and test by an alien race that needs someone to take part in an epic space battle between two warring races in the cosmos. Directed by Nick Castle, who is best known as the original Michael Myers in Halloween, The Last Starfighter is a charming and engaging adventure flick that made the most of the CGI at the time to great effect. Guest is an effective lead and Robert Preston, in his last film role, is his usual affable self. In terms of pure escapism and entertainment value there are few sci-fi films from the early-to-mid 1980s that can match up to this one.
People make jokes about TRON these days for being overtly silly-looking, but let’s face it. If it weren’t for this visionary film from the mind of writer-director Steven Lisberger then both the film and video game industries would be very different today. Lisberger was hooked on video games from the first time he saw Pong in 1976 and realized that the film industry was an amazing medium or advancement of this nascent technology. He encountered a lot of resistance along the way from both the computer industry and Hollywood before he and Donald Kushner convinced Disney to take it on. The end result was a film that kicked open a lot of doors. The film does of course look quaint by today’s standards, but what is amazing about it is how it actually looks more impressive today than many films that followed in the years after. The movie is remarkably well-acted for a genre film at the time, populated with talented actors like Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner and David Warner who deliver on the performance side so as to match the visual bells and whistles. The film’s story is a dividing point among many but I find it a very good supplement to deliver what audiences sought–and still seek–in the film. TRON earns its spot on this list not only by being as influential as it is, but by being a surprisingly good movie, even today.
I would venture to say that there are very few films that captured the video game aesthetic along with the thematic concepts of games more accurately than The Matrix. Unlike most of the games on this list, The Matrix does not overtly insert video games into the plot of the film. However, no one can deny that the idea of a virtual world in which we all live is something that finds its inspiration in games like EverQuest, MUDs or even Unreal Tournament. The Wachowskis borrowed heavily from video game culture for not only the themes and universe of their film’s mythology, but also the look. From the green tint that reminds us of the days of Commodore 64’s monochromatic emerald text and the wardrobe–pure hacker chic–everything about The Matrix screams video game. It’s not surprise that the franchise spawned several games itself, though it may be somewhat embarrassing to said franchise to note that all of them were relative failures. (The inability to make video games based on movies is perhaps even stronger than the inability to make films based on video games.) Add in the game-changing special effects and a storyline that knocked you on your ass with its surprisingly philosophical questions and you have a film that fits firmly within a list of video game-inspired movies.
David Cronenberg’s story of the ultimate massive multiplayer online role-playing game is exactly what one might expect from the man responsible for Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly. Cronenberg injects the film with his trademark body horror elements by turning the sterile world of online gaming into a place of umbilical corded “game pods” and bio ports. Cronenberg’s film bears themes similar to those of The Matrix, and the same sort of mind-bending questions are asked. Where the Wachowski brothers’ film is slicker and more visually impressive, eXistenZ explores its themes in a fuller and more realized way. The performances are largely solid with Jude Law doing good work in one of his earlier roles and Jennifer Jason Leigh showing that she still had it. While The Matrix may be the more successful film by far, eXistenZ is the one I prefer; it offers a more interesting and even prophetic story than that of Neo and Agent Smith (and doesn’t have The Matrix Revolutions as a follow-up to weigh it down.)
It almost feels like cheating a little bit to put this film on the list, as it doesn’t borrow from video game themes to tell a fictional narrative. However, Seth Gordon’s documentary about the surprisingly bitter war over who is the true Donkey Kong champion is obviously inspired by video games, albeit in a more overt way. Gordon tells the story of the conflict between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, the challenger and champion respectively of the Donkey Kong world. Along the way it delves into the oddly-obsessive world of competitive video gaming, a world where Mitchell is like some kind of rock star who is desperately trying to hold onto his spot. You could make a lot of comparisons with this film and the world of professional wrestling as Mitchell uses dirty tricks to hold onto his position while Wiebe fights against the odds to emerge the hero. The movie becomes sort of a metaphor for the difficulties of breaking past the glass ceiling in the world; it also happens to be remarkably funny at times as well. King of Kong is one of my favorite documentaries of any kind and an incredibly good watch.
When Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was released in 2010 it inspired an incredibly divisive reaction; some hated the overly-hip attitude while others loved the film’s aesthetic and tongue-in-cheek fun. Count me among the latter. Up until last year there was no better representation of a video game in film form, which is ironic when you consider that it’s not actually based off a video game but rather Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series. From the eight-bit graphic and MIDI sounds that serve as the Universal Pictures logo in the beginning to the use of extra lives, boss battles, leveling up and so on, Edgar Wright’s film perfectly captures the video game feel. Michael Cera plays to type in this film but does so in an effective way while Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an enticing romantic lead in Ramona Flowers. The film is a visual masterpiece and the story has a sense of energetic fun to it that belies the hipster sensibilities. It’s ostentatious and practically dares you to dislike it, but in the end for those looking for video game-style fun there is only one better film out there.
Last year’s big video game film tops this list with ease. It isn’t surprising, considering the difficulties in bringing an established video game property to the screen, that the best video game-based movie would come from an original storyline not specifically related to an actual game. Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph is more respectful to video games than any direct adaptation has been to date, with references to everything from Street Fighter and Pac-Man to Donkey Kong, Call of Duty, House of the Dead, Sonic the Hedgehog and Mass Effect. But director Rich Moore and screenwriters Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee recognized that just filling the world with video game references wouldn’t be enough; there had to be an engaging story and they deliver on that front. The voice acting from John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch and Alan Tudyk is top notch and the CGI work is inventive and a treat for the eyes. Wreck-It Ralph accomplishes a very rare thing in that it is more than just a movie that is great for gamers. It’s a great movie that gamers can appreciate on another level.
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season: Season Nine (1971)
Episodes Watched: 593
Last Serial Completed: Day of the Daleks – The Doctor and Jo are sent by UNIT to investigate reports of a ghost appearance in a house where a critical peace conference is being held that could prevent world war. Before long they are plunged ahead 200 years into a future where the Daleks reign supreme over Earth, with a small human resistance with a way to jump back to the past their (and mankind’s) only hope for aid.
Surviving Episodes Remaining: 36
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.