Total Recall

Total Recall: Movies About Video Games

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

by | November 1, 2012 | Comments

Video Game Movies

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!

Cloak & Dagger


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.”

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters


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.”

The Last Starfighter


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.”

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:

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