I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it’s widely accepted among gaming movie-goers that movies based on video games are never quite as good as the games themselves. But movies that contain references to video games…? Well, that’s another beast entirely, and usual one that much more tame and enjoyable. While it’s unfortunate that Hollywood often invokes typical “gamer” stereotypes (as “they” do with just about any group “they” don’t fully understand), when a video game, game accessory, or a simple mention of a game gets a little (i.e. NES Advantage controller in Ghostbusters 2) or a lot (Tron – the whole movie) of screen time, it warms the corners of my heart. Here are a few of my favorite movies with video game references, and one that coulda-been but wasn’t.
I know I’m not alone in saying WarGames is a great movie. A mop-headed Matthew Broderick stars as a “hacker” who just wants to get his game on. Little does he realize that his quest to play Global Thermonuclear War will end in chaos, bringing the nation to the brink of disaster! As much as I love watching Broderick manipulate his way into the “game,” my favorite character is actual Joshua, the computer program that was created to run simulations of a nuclear attack. The lesson learned, through both repeated simulations (i.e. which nation begins the attack and how the others retaliate) and the game of tic-tac-toe, is that when it comes to (nuclear) war, no one wins. It’s ridiculously simple but still resonates today. As does the phrase, “Shall we play a game?”
The Last Starfighter
In the mid 1980s, there was lots of movies you just couldn’t escape. Return of the Jedi was still fresh in mind, Gremlins and Indiana Jones at the Temple of Doom ushered in a new movie rating, and some new film about busting ghosts was attracted loads of attention. Meanwhile, I became entranced by a little move called The Last Starfighter, a sci-fi feature that involved a video game, a player, and a fantastical interstellar journey. At the heart of the movie was an arcade game called “Starfighter,” a vector graphics game in which the player, from the vantage point of a ships cockpit, shot down alien fighters to save the “Xur and Ko-Dan Armada.” The main character, Alex, proved so adept with the game that he was sought out by the game’s creator to actually (and unbeknownst to him at the time) go in to space to save the actual Xur and Ko-Dan Armada. I can’t even tell you how much I wanted this game as a kid. I loved the movie and I loved the idea that a video game could take you places you have never been before.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Why am I mentioning a movie that’s not at all about video games? Because it contains my most favorite scene of people playing video games. For some reason (and I’m looking at you The Big Bang Theory), so often in movies and TV, gamers are shown flailing about in the strangest of strange way when playing games. Arms waving, fingers frantically pushing button in unimaginable combinations, herky-jerky body movements. What IS all that about? Well, in The 40 Year Old Virgin, there’s a simple scene with Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd playing Mortal Kombat: Deception. Trash-talking aside, they aren’t jumping out of their seats, moving wildly, or looking like their about to have seizures. They look like two guys playing a video game like normal people. Why Hollywood feels the need to jazz up gaming with choreography, I’ll never know.
Rumble in the Bronx
You don’t need to tell me twice to check out a Jackie Chan movie. From the technical mastery he displayed in The Legend of the Drunken Master to his recent comedies (sans Rush Hour 2 and 3, please), Jackie Chan is really good at what he does. Rumble in the Bronx is one of Chan’s best and most entertaining offerings. And it contains this funny and somewhat famous scene involving a game-less Sega Game Gear. Chan gives the handheld to a young, wheelchair-bound friend. We see little of the Game Gear from the front, but the back of the device, including its very empty game slot, is in plain view in a couple scenes. What’s more, when the little guy is shown playing “games,” the Game Gear is still empty, yet we hear the blips and bloops of a game in progress. Whenever I see the scenes today, however, all I can think of if how big that Game Gear was! Funny that handhelds went from small to big to small…and it seems the cycle is coming back round.
So that was fun, yes? See, video games can be great in movies, whether they take the front or back seats. But when I think back upon some of my favorite movies, one missed opportunity comes to mind. One instance where I think the mere mention of a video game, which didn’t happen, could have, quite possibly, changed the course of history, I say without a hint of exaggeration (though not really).
When it comes to sci-fi comedies, I don’t know if it gets much better than Spaceballs. This raucous offering from Mel Brooks is nothing short of a classic movie-going experience. Thankfully, though my parents often edited what we were allowed to watch and rent, they enjoyed this one as much as their children. (Plus, it was rather tame compared to, oh, say, History of the World, Part 1.) In and among all the silliness that defines Spaceballs is one moment where, in my mind, Spaceballs could have transcended into true geek stardom but didn’t. In the movie, our Star Wars-knock-off heroes, Lone Starr and Barf, meet a Yoda knock-off named Yogurt. In a brilliant turn of wordplay, Yogurt goes from teaching Lone Starr about the “schwartz” (read: force) to telling him all about his merchandising scheme, which is, as we all know, where the real money of any movie is made. We hear about Spaceballs: The T-shirt, Spaceballs: The Lunch box, even Spaceballs: The Flame Thrower! But not one mention of THE BEST possible tie-in: Spaceballs: The Video Game. Sure, it would have been horrible, probably, but no more dangerous than that flamethrower. Had this idea simply been mentioned among all the other merchandise, who knows what levels of geekery we might have seen concerning it today. (P.S. Thank the stars for the Internet, because apparently there was a Spaceballs arcade game prototype made in the 1980s, but it never really saw the light of day! Bummer…I think.)
Got any favorite video game references in movies of your own?