This Friday “Wreck-It Ralph,” Disney‘s 52nd feature-length animated film, is released nationwide. A loving, zippy homage to classic arcade games and the world of gaming, it feels more like a tried-and-true video game adaptation than actual video game adaptations (like the odious “Silent Hill: Retribution,” which is also currently in theaters). In honor of “Wreck-It Ralph,” we’ve compiled a list of five movies that play like video games even though they have nothing to do with real-life video games. Hope you have some extra quarters handy.
Movie: “The Last Starfighter” (Nick Castle, 1984)
Concept: Aliens recruit an average teenager named Alex Rogan (Lance Guest, who, unlike most teenagers, looks like he’s 38) to fight in a galactic war. Primitive visual effects ensue.
Video Game-y Qualities: Produced at the height of arcade game omnipresence, Alex is a kid who is really, really great at a video game called “Starfighter.” When he threatens to break an all-time record, he’s whisked away by the game’s creator, played by Robert Preston (in his last screen role and in full tilt “Music Man” mode), to fight in an interplanetary war. It’s the ultimate teenage wish fulfillment fantasy (especially at the time, when arcade games could be found in every suburban pizza joint from sea to shining sea), and while there’s something vaguely cynical about the plot, which borrows liberally from “Star Wars,” there’s also something undeniably hooky and clever about it, too. Visually, “The Last Starfighter” looks a whole lot like the “Star Wars” video game that followed the film’s release (where crude wireframes suggest the Death Star trenches) and countless other space combat games. And like “TRON” (which shared the video game-centric plot and a spot on this list) was one of the first big films to extensively use computer-generated imagery. While the visual effects today look pretty crude, they do, somehow, add to the video game-y quality of the movie.
Worth Your Quarters? Probably not. While romantic and wistful, at 101 minutes, it still drags, and the old-school effects do more harm than good. Although it is interesting to think about director Nick Castle, a John Carpenter protégé who just a few years before was the guy in the Michael Myers mask in “Halloween.”
Movie: “Tron” (Steven Lisberger, 1982)
Concept: Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a computer programmer zapped into a video game mainframe, where he competes in a series of futuristic games and clunky exposition.
Video Game-y Qualities: “TRON” was, at least initially, inspired by director Steven Lisberger’s fascination with original video game “Pong,” which was an electronic game of ping-pong, and can still be felt in the sequences where combatants engage in “disc wars,” hurling deadly Frisbees at one another. In a weird way, “TRON” anticipated the explosion of Internet-based games like “World of Warcraft,” with people creating sophisticated avatars and living complicated, computer-based lives within the system (or “grid,” in TRON-speak). While a number of video game styles are highlighted in “TRON,” among them a kind of prototypical racing game where players pilot “light cycles” along a patterned board (predating things like Nintendo’s “F-Zero” franchise) and the aforementioned disc games, which depict a weapons-based fighting style not unlike the “Soul Caliber” games. (“TRON’s” sequel, “TRON: Legacy,” is more video art installation than video game, with a meandering narrative closer to boring computer game “MYST” than anything arcade-worthy.) Today, the visuals of “TRON” (courtesy of French comic book artist Moebius and “Blade Runner” designer Syd Meade) still enchant (especially when scored by Wendy Carlos‘ trippy score); in 1982, though, the computer-generated imagery, then-unheard-of, was downright mind blowing. Like “The Last Starfighter,” its rudimentary effects add to its charm and its place in video game history. The “TRON” video game, perhaps suitably, was (until the sequel came about) more remembered than the movie it was inspired by.
Worth Your Quarters? Definitely. “TRON” remains visually arresting and agreeably weird, even if the pacing is somewhat off and, to the more cynical out there, the effects too elementary.
Movie: “Gamer” (Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
Concept: In the future, teens control real-life video game avatars (like hardened Gerard Butler) who are death row inmates. Or something.
Video Game-y Qualities: The first movie to try and capture, on a purely visceral level, the experience of first-person shooters, a style and genre of video games exemplified by the wildly popular “Call of Duty” games. (The movie based on one of the original first-person shooters, “Doom,” starring The Rock, featured an extended sequence that replicated the experience but it was more gimmicky than anything else.) It also plays into the wired-in nature of the aforementioned Internet-based video games like “World of Warcraft,” in which players can reshape their identity through complex avatars, and the phenomenon of teenage kids beating grown adults asses online. (Not that that has ever happened to us, of course.) And there are a couple of amazing sequences that really get the blood going, but by and large the directing team of Neveldine and Taylor (responsible for the similarly game-indebted “Crank” films) mistake a nonstop frenzy of violence over nuance and stealth, characteristics that are just as emphasized in the world of first-person shooters. Also, the sci-fi narrative is muddled and confusing and borrows liberally from “Death Race 2000” without that film’s sly social commentary. Plus, Gerard Butler is less emotive than most video game characters.
Worth Your Quarters? Nope. Although there is a sequence where Michael C. Hall, as the evil video game designer, does a crazy dance. But you can probably find that on YouTube.
Movie: “Speed Racer” (The Wachowskis, 2008)
Concept: At some point in the future a new kind of engine has replaced the internal combustion one, leaving high-stakes, high-speed races as the entertainment of the day. One racer, named Speed (Emile Hirsch), hopes to win it all.
Video Game-y Qualities: This is probably as close to a “Mario Kart” major motion picture as we’re ever going to get. That Nintendo franchise, which “Wreck-It Ralph” openly riffs on in the film’s “Sugar Rush” sequences, is known for its kaleidoscopic color scheme and caffeinated pacing, both of which “Speed Racer” share in spades. There’s also a sequence early in the film where Speed is “racing” the ghost of his older brother, who died tragically and whose record Speed is trying to beat. It’s like when you choose to “replay” your previous lap on a racing game for higher points. There’s also never been a visual equivalent to video games in quite the same way “Speed Racer” was – the Wachowskis were going for the look of the Japanese anime the film was ostensibly based on, so they photographed everything independently and composited them together so that nothing would have depth. It would look very flat – like a piece of two dimensional animation. Or, as it were, an old-school videogame. Whole sequences, too, are structured like video game levels – when a character crosses a finish line you practically sit in rapt anticipation of the final score (and the knowledge of whether or not you’ll advance to the next level). Visually unparalleled, “Speed Racer” was criminally overlooked upon its initial release but has gained a sizable cult following (and not just by hardcore drug users, either) in the years since, culminating last year with an appearance on a Time Magazine list of the Best Sports Movies ever.
Worth Your Quarters? Yes. Watching/playing “Speed Racer” will only make you want to watch/play again and just like with video games, it’s more fun with friends.
Movie: “The Matrix” (The Wachowskis, 1999) and “eXistenZ” (David Cronenberg, 1999)
Concept: Both films question reality and give heroes a chance to go on an existential journey to discover the truth about themselves and the world around them. Also: weird robots.
Video Game-y Qualities: Both “The Matrix” and “eXistenZ,” arguably the two greatest movies about virtual reality and the way that video games have the potential to disrupt our understanding of reality, were released in 1999, on the cusp of a new millennium, at what seemed like the height of filmmaking that incorporated wild experimentation into commercial viable product. Both are heady and existential and ask the same question – what if we aren’t playing a video game but rather the video game is playing us? In “eXistenZ,” the world has come under the spell of a video game that resembles a small squishy embryo (that you hook up via an umbilical chord), which results in our heroes (unlikely duo Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law) going on a very video game-ish quest to discover the truth, in which they follow-up on mysteries, collect items (like a gun made out of bone), and face certain death. With “The Matrix,” the world is revealed to be one large video game, controlled by evil robot overlords, a revelation that causes a lone warrior (Keanu Reeves) to reshape reality as he sees fit — mostly by engaging in a bunch of sequences that resemble video game passages. “The Matrix” is noteworthy for its synthesis of multiple video game platforms, like the first-person shooter elements of the infamous lobby shoot-out to the more fighting game scenario of his showdown with Agent Smith. You could tell that the Wachowskis were actually gamers, unlike Cronenberg, who approaches the material with a more detached, icily intellectualized approach (that more resembles a Role Playing Game than anything else). In a case of the tail wagging the dog, “The Matrix” would inspire an online world and an expansive video game called “Enter the Matrix,” which would tie the original film in with its two (underwhelming) sequels, while the “bullet time” sequence from “The Matrix” would go on to become a video game staple, most notably in the “Max Payne” series. Both films hit right before video games started getting attention as a serious cultural art form. They’re both philosophical cautionary fables and button-mashing blasts.
Worth Your Quarters? Yes. These two films are the height of video game-inspired cinema.