Video Game Movies: A Retrospective
Cinema has had something of a problematic relationship with video games. The majority of directors simply haven’t been able to “get” gaming, thus leading to endless examples of laughable inaccuracy concerning the pastime in film and television. To this day, most characters on screen will be mindlessly mashing buttons in a way that makes no sense for any game yet released.
But video games have now been around for decades, and what was once a hobby only for kids and marginalized adults is now almost fully integrated into pop culture. Mario is the Mickey Mouse of the modern age, recognized and beloved the world over. Wreck-It Ralph will soon be hitting theaters, and it looks like the first film that truly understands what’s up with all this Nintenstation stuff. But before that movie comes out, it’s worth revisiting the notable video game-related films that have come before.
A note: I will not be covering movie adaptations of video games, because those have been universally terrible and embarrassing.* This is a list of movies about video games, or which factor games heavily into their plots.
You have to give Steven Lisberger, the director/writer of Tron some credit. He saw Pong and, rather than dismiss it as a curiosity, recognized all the potential that lay in the creation of a virtual world with which humans could interact. Besides the revolutionary special effects (which were ignored by the Oscars because using a computer was “cheating” somehow – look at what kinds of special effects they reward today and breathe in the irony deeply), there isn’t really much to write home about as far as the plot, which features a man (Jeff Bridges) going inside a computerized world to do corporate warfare. But without this movie, there would have been no digital effects revolution. Some might think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing (and sometimes, yes, I wish movies would use more practical effects), but at the very least, John Lasseter himself has said that without Tron, there’d be no Pixar.
Buried in the wave of post-Animal House sex comedies was this film, directed by B-movie journeyman Greydon Clark. The movie has Joe Don Baker as a businessman seeking to shut down a local arcade. It’s little more than a curiosity, but features an early exaggeration of arcade culture, variations of which would pop up in later pop culture.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
One of the great things about video games is how they allow us to vicariously become someone else, often someone extraordinary. As long as there have been games, there have been dreamers imagining translating their joystick skills to real life. The Last Starfighter is that dream given life. It turns out that a popular arcade game is actually a recruiting tool for an alien race seeking to discover a savior in their desperate interstellar conflict. When Lance Guest proves himself to be the best at the game, he soon finds himself piloting a real space ship in the war. This is an 80′s film seemingly designed to be a nostalgic favorite, and I’m frankly shocked that it hasn’t yet been lined up for a remake.
The Wizard (1989)
Just thinking about this immensely silly movie gives me a goofy grin. Fred Savage stars as a boy whose younger half-brother, Jimmy (Luke Edwards) has Hollywood Autism, which manifests in an uncanny skill at video games. The two go on a road trip to California to participate in a gaming tournament, and learn life lessons and whatever along the way. Chock-full of amazingly campy moments (such as a young man brandishing a Nintendo Power Glove (TM) and declaring it “so bad”), The Wizard has become a cult classic among gamers everywhere.
Leave it to David Cronenberg to undertake one of the first serious explorations of the philosophical possibilities of simulated reality. This mind-bending, twisty film stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law as a game designer and her bodyguard, respectively, who fight their way through different levels of sometimes-questionable reality. The film was well-received, but vastly overshadowed by The Matrix, which came out less than a month before it. There was only room for one movie about digital worlds, sadly.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
One of the best documentaries of last decade pulled off the unlikely accomplishment of making a video game pissing match between two men into an utterly riveting conflict. Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell’s competition to achieve the high score in Donkey Kong sheds light on the world of hardcore arcade enthusiasts, who persist with a format long abandoned by most others. The film is hilarious, thrilling and brimming over with genuine heart.
Tron Legacy: Legacy (2009)
Someone thought that Tron should get a sequel. It took almost thirty years, but it happened. Despite a huge budget and an insanely aggressive marketing campaign, Disney only got middling reviews and satisfactory but not mind-blowing box office returns out of the project. The movie has human doll Garrett Hedlund as the son of the protagonist of the original Tron going into the virtual world in order to rescue his father (still Jeff Bridges), who is being held captive by a digital double of himself (also Jeff Bridges, but looking super-creepy due to digital de-aging). It’s a kind of limp film, albeit one with a cool soundtrack and nice effects.
Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
A documentary about those who make video games outside of the major production companies. These guys labor for years, alone, to put together something that’s both fun to play and artistic. A great, moody meditation on creativity, perseverance, and expression, this is one of the more quietly great docs of the year.
*Yes, most of what I ended up with is still terrible and/or embarrassing. Nonetheless.