With Wreck-It Ralph poised to bring video game-related inside jokes to a whole new level on the big screen, I figured it’s a good time to look at which video game movies define and create this specific niche genre. Whether it be 8-bit classics, or wacky cinematic gaming creations, good movies or bad movies, here are 11 films essential to understanding the phenomenon of video games adapted for the screen.
11. Street Fighter
Hey, what’s your favorite video game movie featuring Kylie Minogue? What? Don’t have one? Okay, we’ll give you this one for free: Street Fighter, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme! (Yes, that hyphen is in the right place.) Like Mortal Kombat, the inevitability of Street Fighter getting made into a movie was pretty much on par with a Spice Girls reunion: it was only a matter of time. There’s something charmingly 90s-ish about this movie, an era where action movies seemed more willing to be cartoonish. Its faithfulness to the video game is astonishingly low, but then again, I’ve always taken a bit of an issue with Street Fighter’s faithfulness to its own premise: do any of these people truly look like they came from the streets? The knife-wielding dancers in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” have more street cred than this cast of characters.
10. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Perhaps the most controversial and beloved video game heroine of all time, Lara Croft was bound to get some kind of Hollywood treatment if only because of the widespread gamer obsession with her and all of her darn tomb raiding. It also would have been sort of insane had anyone other than Angelina Jolie been cast in the lead role, but a weird little tidbit we tend to forget about these movies is that Mr. Daniel Craig is here, too, as Jolie’s right-hand man.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a movie now in which Craig would be Jolie’s second fiddle, but behold! It exists! Beyond introducing us to Daniel Craig and having Jolie do exactly what you’d expect her to do in a movie like this, the question remains: does it do anything else? Does it hold up as an adaptation to a video game people like and as a movie, too? I’d say time will not be kind to Lara Croft, as she seems to represent an outdated take on the idea of kick-ass females. As for the movie? It’s kind of fun, if only for the novelty of seeing both Jolie and Craig in roles that they’ve grown way beyond, on Hollywood's seriousness scale.
9. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
One could describe Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within as a great experiment, insofar as it attempted to mainstream the idea of a serious feature-length live-action movie depicted entirely by CGI graphics. This was a natural extension of cut-scenes from games around the turn of the millennium, which got better and better at depicting CGI people and environments, and the audaciousness of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has to at least be acknowledged and commended. How do you adapt a super-popular and extremely complicated roleplaying game series into a mainstream movie?
Because this movie was directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi—the creator of the Final Fantasy series—it may be the purest video game movie of all time. For 2001, the CG characters look fairly realistic, and the cast, ranging from Ving Rhames to James Wood to Alec Baldwin, hardly lacks Hollywood cred. The only thing you can really say negatively about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is that it doesn’t quite become a film but instead firmly remains a big-budget, star-studded cut-sequence. But maybe that’s what a video game movie is supposed to be...
The idea that video games desensitize young people to actual violence might be up for debate, but WarGames focuses right in on the issue, depicting the joy behind playing a game that you think is fake, but would have terrible consequences in real life...such as launching a nuclear strike. There’s something novel and Twilight Zone-esque about the premise, in which a hacker starts playing a game and then ZING, it’s not a game, it’s DEFCON 1! But, as much as it’s lauded, I always find War Games to be a better movie to think about in theory than to actually watch. On this list of video game movies it doesn’t really seem like it would necessarily appeal to people who truly love video games, but at the end of the day it is a good movie.
7. Super Mario Bros.
Though this is probably one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, if you were to describe its premise to me without the cultural context of knowing it was a Mario Bros. movie, I’d think it sounded awesome. An alternate universe were intelligent dinosaurs are living? And they’ve kidnapped a princess?! Yes please! Also, despite its badness, the cast is sort of amazing. In terms of Dennis Hopper playing a bad guy, there’s an argument to be made for a direct tie between his psychotic turn as King Koopa in this movie and his villainously insane portrayal of Frank in Blue Velvet. Come to think of it, what would a Blue Velvet video game be like?
6. Resident Evil
Alien anthropologists from the future will doubtlessly conclude that shooting zombies in the head with a shotgun was a national pastime of the United States of America. And while it’s hard to pick one epicenter of zombie-mania in pop culture, the Resident Evil video games certainly controlled a good amount of shambling undead enthusiasm for good period of recent history. While the longevity of the Resident Evil movie series remains somewhat baffling (check out a great recap on Red Letter Media here) the low-budget and exploitation-film quality of the first movie isn’t unwatchable. Who is being exploited? Poor Milla Jovovich? Perhaps, but I’d say the zombies are even bigger victims. To be honest, if forced to choose between sexy-lady flicks based on video games, I think I’d take Resident Evil over Tomb Raider any day.
5. The Wizard
You can either look at this as a shameless plug for the original Nintendo gear (which it is) or you could view it as the video-game version of Rain Man. I mean, there is something sort of charming (and disturbing?) about an autistic video game wizard, right? Doesn’t this movie tell all the kids out there they can be that good at video games, particularly if they can shell out for the Nintendo power glove? Certain cult classic films are cinematic ouroboros where your opinion of the movie keeps shifting, causing the relative goodness/badness to be devoured by the paradox of the movie’s existence...Mac and Me is like this, too. And as much as I love Fred Savage, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to reconcile how to feel about this movie in my mind.
4. Mortal Kombat
The staff here at Tor.com has an unabashed soft spot for Christopher Lambert, and there’s no real good rational reason beyond his presence to actually watch this movie. Obviously, there’s a certain thrill every teen and pre-teen in the 90’s had in response to seeing live-action incarnations of the various kombatants of Mortal Kombat. But does Mortal Kombat the movie make any sense? No, but the game doesn’t really either, so it really comes down to what you enjoy more: making your friend experience a fatality via a video game controller OR listening to Christopher Lambert’s creepy/hilarious laugh. Personally, we’ll take the laugh any day.
3. The King of Kong
Were you aware there is a real life organization called Twin Galaxies, which keeps track of high scores on arcade games? I don’t think any list of video game movies could really be complete without this one. This documentary about a man trying to topple the reigning high score on the Donkey Kong arcade console is absolutely awesome. If you’re unfamiliar with video game nuts, the movie will blow you away. If you ARE familiar with video game nuts, the movie will still blow you away. Why Donkey Kong? How does it all shake out? Does Steve Wiebe take the title from Billy Mitchell? Why is Billy Mitchell so fiercely protective of this title? Grab this great documentary and find out.
2. The Last Starfighter
In the grand scheme of science fiction, I tend to feel like every original idea has been done before in some way, shape, or form. But, for all of its kitschy borrowing from the aesthetics of other 80s movies, I can’t really knock the originality of the premise of The Last Starfighter. Briefly: an awesome arcade game about a spaceship taking on an entire armada ends up being a recruitment device for a real space fighter organization in need of hotshots.
This movie also gets extra props for having all the space action look like an extra-realistic video game. Did it look realistic? No! It looked like a video game, but it was still awesome. The movie also wins points for thinking though the science fictional consequences for the young guy who suddenly leaves his trailer park to go to space. What would happen? Well, they’d leave behind a “beta-unit” clone which would serve as target practice for the Bounty Hunters. Tragic!
There will probably never be a better video game movie than Tron, if only because its premise was way ahead of its time and because it was coupled with an aesthetic that is so bonkers that it ends up being totally charming. The idea that computer programs are sentient and “believe” in the idea of users is just plain awesome. Add to that the idea that their belief in real humans is suppressed (by David Warner, no less!) Only a video game designer and a guy who writes security programs can save the virtual world, which by extension will save the real world: You can’t ask for a bigger shout-out to hardcore nerds than that. Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner are both young, skinny, and sexy and even though the special effects aren’t “cool,” they are still recognizably Tron-ish, to this day. For me, Tron created its own vocabulary of what a video game movie could do, and there’s really nothing quite like it. You can read my gushing about it even more over here.
Bonus Level: Wing Commander
So, in the 1990s there was a series of computer games called Wing Commander. They were all about space pilots dogfighting with cat-people in space. When the games got fancy, Mark Hamill portrayed the player’s main character during cut-scenes, Thomas F. Wilson (Biff!) played your wingman, and Malcolm McDowell played the Admiral who ran everything.
But when they decided to make real movie out of it, did they cast these amazing nerd-tastic SF staples? Nope! Instead, Christopher Blair was played by Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Maniac was played by Matthew Lillard. Now, surely they could have gotten Malcom McDowell to play Admiral Tolwyn, right? Nope. For some reason, in the movie it’s inexplicably David Warner. Wing Commander represents to me a confounding example of the cast of a video game being way more legit than its movie adaptation, at least for the supposed target audience.
So that’s the list, but be sure to check back in all next week when we’ll be paying tribute to a few of these movies, and some additional favorite old school video game movies, throughout the week!
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com and is really bad at video games.