Seek out these diamonds in the rough.
Update: With another video game movie out this week — the new Tomb Raider! — it seemed like the perfect time to look on the bright side of the genre once more…
A glance at the three-and-a-half decade history of video game movie adaptations and arcade-inspired films reveals a landscape littered with disappointment. Most game films range somewhere between merely meh and obnoxiously odious. But sprinkled amidst the masses of mediocrity and canyons of crap are a few films that are positively enjoyable. Next time you’re looking for an entertaining movie, check out these seven recommended diversions totally worth your time.
Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of a video game villain fed up with being taken for granted. Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) escapes from his game cabinet and wanders the network connecting his local arcade on a quest to earn some respect. The inside jokes on game culture Ralph encounters on his odyssey are uniformly amusing to the core gamer audience, but the movie shines brightest when it focuses on themes of friendship, jealousy, and the inevitability of change. Top-tier voice talent, a rib-tickling script, and a legitimately-surprising plot twist help make Ralph the best all-ages video game movie.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) parses his lonely, unemployed, Canadian life through the filter of early-nineties pop culture. Scott’s in love with the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but to win her heart he’ll have to defeat her seven evil exes. Their courtship plays out like an insane real-world retelling of River City Ransom. The video game ambiance drips from every corner of the script, with nods to Zelda, Clash at Demonhead, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, DDR, Crash and the Boys, and a host of other vintage games. A classic coming-of-age romance featuring a smart script, superb directing, and great performances by the entire cast, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is an unqualified gem.
For forty years, the United States lived under the shadow of imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union. WarGames taps into the paranoia of mutual assured destruction, fusing the threat of annihilation with the emerging computer-age fear of artificial intelligence and the removal of human beings from decision-making. Despite the Reagan-era anachronisms (eight-inch floppies, pay phone hacking) and some storytelling silliness (a quick-witted Matthew Broderick effortlessly escapes from NORAD after almost starting World War III), WarGames has genuinely prophetic undertones. It predicts the automation of the systems governing people’s lives and the potential marginalization such a surrender of power implies, themes that grow more relevant by the day. It’s a genuinely entertaining thriller with a clever, memorable ending sequence built around the highest-stakes video game ever played.
Indie Game: The Movie
Indie Game follows the work of four developers: Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish (Fez), and Jonathan Blow (Braid). Blow’s reflections are illuminating and Fish’s development-hell apprehensions alternate between touching and disturbing, but the heartwarming story of Team Meat’s rush to launch is the film’s most poignant draw. The filmmakers make the best of their access to the unfiltered apprehensions of creators strained to the breaking point. The resulting drama positively glows with sincerity and heartbreak. You don’t have to care about video games to get pulled into the extraordinary tale of people laboring to make good on their dreams.
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
The dramatic documentary account of two socially-awkward grown men striving for supremacy in capturing the Donkey Kong world record is surprisingly compelling, a real-world Rocky played out on the strangest of stages. Our good-hearted but vulnerable hero (Steve Wiebe) devotes himself to mastering the notoriously-difficult game in the face of a competitive culture that appears stacked against him. Opposing him is the hot-sauce peddling arcade legend Billy Mitchell, a ridiculously skilled champion who slides into disconcerting antisocial behavior as the story progresses. I won’t spoil how the contest ends, but in true sports-melodrama fashion, we happily watch Wiebe struggle, endure, mature, and grow as he passes through the competitive ordeal. It’s solid storytelling.
The Last Starfighter
The Last Starfighter is silly…let’s get that out of the way. The low-budget effects and campy kid-movie vibe are unmistakable, and the “I love you” moment is positively cringeworthy. But couched within the dated effects and corny premise is an entertaining, funny adventure movie. A teenage trailer-park resident (Lance Guest) discovers that the arcade machine near his home is in fact a secret recruitment tool for ace starfighter pilots. Spirited away to outer space, he comes face to face with an evil galactic armada and, naturally, becomes the only being who can save the universe from enslavement. The early CG special effects are a time capsule to an era when anything demonstrably computer-related was considered cool no matter how unrealistic. The performances are completely in line with the sweeping, boisterous tone, and supporting sequences involving the boy’s android duplicate provide a candid balance of humor that helps the whole film go down smoothly.
Like The Last Starfighter, much of Tron’s notoriety rests on being a video game movie made in an era where anything created with computers was instantly awesome. The pacing isn’t great and the writing is uneven, but the core concept is solid summer sci-fi. A loudmouthed Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak hybrid (Jeff Bridges) gets teleported into a hostile computer system where he’s forced to play gladiatorial video games. Once inside, he discovers his user status gives him miraculous powers to reshape the virtual universe. He teams up with a cadre of sentient programs to take down the evil force that threatens both the digital world and our physical reality. For that premise, I can forgive a lot of goofiness. Also, light cycles.
What video game movies do you enjoy? Which ones can’t you stand? Let us know in the comments below!
Jared Petty is a Senior Editor at IGN. He also kind of has a soft spot for the Mortal Kombat movie even though it’s simply terrible. Chat with him on Twitter.