When movies take on video games
Some movies are based on games. Others go further, attempting to emulate the feel or experience of gaming. This is our list of the latter.
The history of movies based on video games is well-documented, from the 1990s Super Mario Bros adaptation to blockbusters like Detective Pikachu and Mortal Kombat.
Not as frequently discussed? Great films about the experience of gaming, rather than specific games.
Never fear. From arcade-inspired blockbusters to competitive documentaries, here’s a very brief look at movies that tried to channel the feel of gaming over the past five decades.
This list, it should go without saying, is far from comprehensive—think of it as a cheat sheet with some personal favorites. OK, let’s dive in.
Disney’s special-effects juggernaut, starring Jeff Bridges as a video game developer transported inside his own creation, was one of the first Hollywood blockbusters to take video games as its core subject. Building on the reign of Atari home consoles and the rise of Nintendo, which established video games’ place in popular culture, Tron opened the mainstream up to new digital worlds with its vivid light cycle battles and thrilling scenes of battle tanks navigating arcade-like mazes.
“Shall we play a game?” Matthew Broderick’s techie breaks into a computer company’s database in hopes of playing an unreleased game, only to unwittingly interface with a top-secret government system and challenge it to a round of “Global Thermonuclear War.” Inspired by the hacker culture of Palo Alto, Calif.—home of SRI and Xerox’s PARC, two key players in Silicon Valley history—WarGames was among the first films to depict computerized military war games and the role of simulations in letting users learn by playing instead of playing to win. It’s a concept with Cold War-era relevance.
David Cronenberg’s prophetic sci-fi movie explored virtual-reality gaming at the dawn of the Internet age, envisioning a future in which biotechnological “game pods” have replaced electronic ones, complete with “bio-ports” surgically inserted into players’ spines. Collapsing the real world and cyberspace, eXistenZ probed the nature of reality, manipulated in new media environments, and the illusion of free will—provocative questions well-posed through the language of video games, with their limited choices and linear progression.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Not just for nerds, Seth Gordon’s documentary about the rivalry between gamers Steve Wieber and Billy Mitchell, competing to become the greatest Donkey Kong player in history, is insightful in its exploration of the human condition, the role that games play in our lives, and the power-combo of ego, entitlement, obsession, and accomplishment that fuels our competitive spirit.
In this dystopian thriller, death-row inmates are forced through deadly tournaments and controlled, via self-replicating nanites, by gamers who experience the combat from their couches. A gratuitous, satirical vision of gladiatorial gameplay that merges MMORPGs with reality television, Gamer asks what limits exist to hyper-immersive media, questioning the moral ethics of first-person shooters, the “open-world” concept of Grand Theft Auto, and popular culture’s obsession with exploitation as entertainment. All that, and it’s paced as one long, cranked-up adrenaline rush.
Ready Player One (2018)
The geeks inherited the Earth in Steven Spielberg’s ambitious adaptation of Ernest Cline’s dystopian novel, about a VR simulation that humanity uses to escape reality (to such a degree in-game currency has become the accepted global currency and most people never log off). A sci-fi spectacle and a nostalgia trip, Ready Player One was awash in pop culture—Minecraft, Street Fighter, Speed Racer, Tron, Galaga, and more—even as it told a story about the dangers of becoming too consumed by it.
Tracing the origins of the iconic puzzle game to Soviet Moscow, where a Dutch-born American businessman battled billionaires and KGB operatives to bring a Russian computer programmer’s pioneering invention to the west, Tetris is a stranger-than-fiction true story in which characters see falling blocks in their dreams. “It’s poetry, art, and math all working in magical synchronicity,” declares one character, in this ardent celebration of an arcade classic. “It's the perfect game."
Thanks for reading the ABK Edit! Subscribe to receive posts like this straight to your inbox.