Hollywood can't get enough of that state-of-the-art 3D CGI, but this weekend, Disney issues a proud tribute to our 8-bit past with the classic arcade throwback Wreck-it Ralph. If you're anything like us, Ralph's Q*Bert and King Koopa cameos will trigger long-buried arcade flashbacks, but even if you've never lost a quarter (or hours of your life) to a game, you've probably seen at least a few of the movies on our latest list. Yes, this week, we're paying tribute to movies whose plots hinge on video games, and you know what that means -- limber up your thumbs, because it's time for Total Recall!
One of two Dabney Coleman appearances on our list, 1984's Cloak & Dagger starred a post-E.T. Henry Thomas as an 11-year-old gamer whose relationship with his distant father is healed after he inadvertently stumbles into a real-life case of espionage involving a copy of his favorite game (named -- you guessed it -- Cloak & Dagger). Featuring Coleman in a dual role as Thomas' father as well as his imaginary game hero, Jack Flack, Dagger offered a big 1980s spin on the 1940s noir picture The Window while incorporating trendy video game tropes -- and if it didn't fare quite as well as The Last Starfighter, with which it was originally paired as a double feature offering, it was good enough for critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who wrote, "The last thing we need right now is another movie about a boy caught up in the world of computer games -- but Cloak and Dagger, while fitting that mold, is clever and enjoyable anyhow."
One of the more enjoyable, and overlooked, futuristic thrillers of the '90s, David Cronenberg's eXistenZ follows a game developer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a low-level employee at her company (Jude Law) on the run from bad guys wielding freaky guns that shoot human teeth. Sound bizarre? It is, and that doesn't even take into account the script's constant shifts between the real world and an increasingly difficult-to-detect virtual reality. Not a film with particularly broad appeal, in other words, but it tickled the neuroreceptors of critics like Jim Ridley of the Nashville Scene, who wrote, "Cronenberg makes leaps of logic, character, and setting so baffling that they don't become clear until the end. Even then, the final outcome is so devious you'll sit poking yourself to make sure you won't disappear with the click of the projector."
Given how strongly their visual sensibilities seem to have been influenced by video games, you'd think Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor would be a natural fit for a movie like Gamer, which takes place in an imaginary future when technology allows unscrupulous individuals to engage in the "ultimate video game" by using mind control to play a grisly first-person shooter in which the stakes are literally life and death. Alas, most critics felt that the end result was a cynical piece of shoot-'em-up action possessing none of the duo's signature flair -- although it found a few supporters in critics like AMCTV's Maitland McDonaugh, who argued, "A streak of genius runs through this dystopian vision of a world where VR games are played with real people... it touches some exposed nerves before retreating into clichés."
A lot of movies about video games highlight the way they can blur the line between reality and its virtual facsimile -- but perhaps none so effectively as King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Seth Gordon's 2007 documentary about the war that continues to rage over ultimate high score supremacy among classic arcade game aficionados. By focusing on the bitter rivalry between mulleted arcade kingpin Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, his soft-spoken challenger for the Donkey Kong world record, King of Kong manages some thought-provoking commentary on human nature while also serving as a pleasantly nostalgic trip down memory lane for the grown-up kids who haunted arcades in the 1980s -- and for those who never lost their allowance to the machines, Adam Graham of the Detroit News writes that it "illuminates and draws you into a subculture you never knew existed and makes you genuinely care about its characters."
A teen-friendly interstellar action flick that brought hardcore gamers' dreams to life while presaging the future direction of military technology, 1984's The Last Starfighter follows the adventures of a small-town teen (Lance Guest) whose incredible skill with a video game (called Starfighter, natch) leads to his being recruited as a pilot in an alien space war. It's familiar stuff -- especially during an era when the memory of one of cinema's most memorable wannabe space warriors, Luke Skywalker, was fresh in everyone's minds -- but it's capably handled, and it's easy to see how The Last Starfighter became one of the most beloved cult classics of the decade. As Rob Vaux of the Flipside Movie Emporium cautioned, "If you're going to shamelessly rip off Star Wars, make sure you do it with as much spirit as this film."