I can’t remember the first time I heard the term “geek culture.” Maybe it was in my cadre of fellow band nerds in high school, or maybe I didn’t hear the term until later in life. Either way, I knew I was a geek because of what I enjoyed in my hobby: pro wrestling, Magic the Gathering, movies, books, and video games. Also, I knew I was a geek because that was the term of endearment used when I got shot down by girls, but that’s beside the point.
Actually, that might be the perfect analogy for the relationship between video games and cinema. Most of the time, it’ll just be a mess (STREET FIGHTER), but you have to keep trying because that relationship could happen at any moment (WRECK-IT RALPH). It’s interesting that no matter the story, all movies that combine with video games or video game culture have glaring similarities: 1) They are always centered on a male protagonist, 2) The protagonist is always broken somehow (such as a missing parental figure or bullied for being different), and 3) Video games are a means of escaping reality.
With the release of PIXELS this week, I thought it’d be good to look at movies centered on gaming or video games. That is to say, there won’t be any movies here that are BASED on games or video games. Also, I’m leaving out the most famous titles, such as WARGAMES and THE LAST STARFIGHTER, and focusing on titles that are solid examples of what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s ugly.
THE GOOD: CLOAK & DAGGER (1984)
It had been years since I’ve seen this movie, about an 11-year old boy named Davey (Henry Thomas) who is obsessed with a video game character, Agent Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman). The story opens on a Jack Flack mission, later revealed to be a role-playing game that Davey and his friend Kim (Christina Nigra) are finishing. While getting snacks for their friend Morris (William Forsythe), Davey is tasked to hiding a Cloak & Dagger game cartridge, which real spies are after. He tries to convince his father (also Dabney Coleman), but he just chalks it up to his coping with the death of Davey’s mother, leading Davey to try and escape the evil clutches of double-agents. It’s an ‘80s kids adventure, so there is some clunky editing and hammy acting (Kim can get annoying at times), but it does well to keep the metaphor of “child services/grandparents trying to take Davey away” on a subversive level. Yes, Davey uses a video game character to escape reality, but it also brings him and his father together in the end. CLOAK & DAGGER is available for rent through various VOD services.
THE BAD: THE WIZARD (1989)
Oof… I should’ve left this movie in my childhood. All I could remember before watching this again were all of the video game references, such as “I love the Power Glove… it’s so bad” and the introduction of Super Mario 3 (my first experience of geeking out, I think). It turns out that there is a reason for why that is: THE WIZARD is a giant video game commercial for kids. It starts out with an emotionally-broken boy named Jimmy (Luke Edwards) getting put into a home for special needs kids because he doesn’t speak since the death of his twin sister. Meanwhile, his half-brother Corey (Fred Savage) is infuriated by this, and even worse, his father (Beau Bridges) and his brother Nick (Christian Slater) won’t do anything about it. So, Corey breaks Jimmy out and they run away together. While on the lam, Corey discovers Jimmy is video game savant, and, with help from Haley (Jenny Lewis), embark on a journey to win a video game tournament. The more I watched, the more I realized how terrible this movie is for kids, or just anybody. Every adult is made out to be argumentative or evil; there’s an unnecessary subplot regarding a man who is a bounty hunter for runaways (is that a real thing?); the trio goes to Reno, where they get booted out of a casino and land in a resort with NOTHING BUT CHILDREN; and, when they get to the video game tournament, all contestants are nothing but children and teens. Also, there’s just no regard for consistency. There’s no way someone can get 50,000 on Double Dragon in a span of two or three minutes. THE WIZARD is available for rent through VOD services.
THE UGLY: GAMER (2009)
Finally, we’ve come to a movie that is so convoluted and sloppy, I just stared at it like I was about to change a diaper for the first time. In the near future, the planet is consumed with the entertainment game known as Slayers, where convicts are made to be real-life avatars for players through a neural network invented by Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall). Kable (Gerard Butler) is the game’s best and has just four more matches before his pardon. Again, we have a broken, male protagonist, except this time video games are his means to an actual escape. However, the activist group known as “humanz” are plotting to break him out in order to stop Castle’s evil plot to enslave everyone in the network. There’s more to the plot, such as Kable’s wife (Amber Valletta) being a whore in Castle’s other sim, Society, as well as Kyra Sedgwick as talk show host hungry for ratings, but there’s no need to delve further into this madness. There is no continuity in the camerawork (I lost count at 200 cuts in the first 45 minutes, give or take), and there’s so much gratuity that I can’t even let it go as social commentary. It also portrays gamers as either rich kids or obese pervs, which takes away any sort of commentary that the movie could’ve actually made. GAMER is available for rent through VOD services.
What are some other movies that you feel represented gaming well? Let your geek flag fly. PIXELS will be invading a theater near you tonight.