Total Recall: Movies About Video Games

With Wreck-It Ralph hitting theaters, we look at movies that explore pixelated worlds.

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Ra. One


Plenty of films have imagined computer programs invading the real world, but Ra. One offers a Bollywood spin on that well-worn plot outline -- and uses it as a high-tech framing device for a story about the bumpy relationship between a struggling game designer (Shahrukh Khan) and his young son (Armaan Verma). It's the kind of setup that can easily spill over into cheap sentimentality, not to mention the overuse of the sort of CG visuals and 3D effects that helped make Ra. One one of the most expensive films ever produced in India, but as far as most U.S. critics were concerned, the end result proved perfectly entertaining -- in the words of Rachel Saltz of the New York Times, a "sci-fi superhero thriller... a kind of entertainment machine set to dazzle, Hindi cinema with a crush on high-tech."

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World


Teenage love can feel as high-stakes as the biggest boss battle in the toughest video game, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World captures that struggle brilliantly -- right down to the power-ups and tongue-in-cheek sound effects that follow Scott (Michael Cera) on his dangerous quest to win the hand of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). No, it isn't as much of a literal gamer film as some of the others on this list, but as a cinematic interpretation of video games' uniquely adrenaline-fueled appeal, it's just about perfect -- and on another level, writes Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News, it's "a romantic adventure for the ADD age, a pop poem for Millennials that could just as well be titled Scott Pilgrim vs. the Old Ways of Storytelling."

Spy Kids 3-D - Game Over


Robert Rodriguez has always had a gift for gonzo visuals, and for the third chapter in his Spy Kids saga, he decided to go all-out, imprisoning his young protagonists in a virtual reality game designed by the nefarious Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone) and presenting the action in 3D. While most critics crossed their fingers in the hopes that the Game Over part of Spy Kids 3D's title would prove prophetic, for others, it was a fun family time at the movies; as Claudia Puig argued for USA Today, "This third installment follows up on the thrills and dazzling visuals that charmed audiences in the first film."



The home computers of the 1980s weren't quite the souped-up gaming machines that some of today's desktops are, but when Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) ran afoul of competing programmer Ed Dillinger (David Warner) and wound up being zapped into the digital realm in 1982's Tron, it was no surprise that he found himself in a gamer's landscape filled with lightcycles and deadly discs -- or that the stakes for those games were suddenly life and death. Calling it "a dazzling movie from Walt Disney in which computers have been used to make themselves romantic and glamorous," Roger Ebert applauded, "Here's a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun."



The movie that forever changed the meaning of the phrase "how about a nice game of chess," WarGames tried to capitalize on the early 1980s video game craze by spinning a far-fetched yarn about a teen hacker (Matthew Broderick) who worms his way into a NORAD computer and, thinking he's playing a cool new game before it hits stores, ends up nearly triggering World War III. It's the kind of bleep-and-bloop-assisted high-stakes drama that Hollywood's been messing up since computers were invented, but in this case, it works -- partly because the drama was amplified by our very real Cold War paranoia, and partly because of a terrific cast that also included Ally Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, and a young (but still quite crusty) Barry Corbin. Observed Roger Ebert, "As a premise for a thriller, this is a masterstroke."

The Wizard


After a few fallow years in the mid-1980s, video games were once again big business by the end of the decade, riding a resurgence largely powered by the wildly popular Nintendo Entertainment System home console. The phenomenon grew so large that it earned what was essentially an extended cinematic commercial for the NES: 1989's The Wizard, starring Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis as a pair of tweens who hitchhike across the country with his kid brother, a nearly mute young gamer whose skills seem tailor-made for the "Video Armageddon" competition. Chiefly notable for giving NES fans their first glimpse of the hotly anticipated Super Mario Bros. 3, the movie died early and often with critics; one of its few positive reviews came from the Arizona Daily Star's rather sarcastic Phil Villarreal, who chuckled, "I love The Wizard. It's so bad."

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don't forget to check out the reviews for Wreck-it Ralph.

Finally, here's a young Emilio Estevez doing battle with a malevolent arcade game called The Bishop of Battle, from the 1983 horror anthology Nightmares: