The best movie based on video games is not one about video game players, like The Wizard or Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. And it’s certainly not one based on any franchise, like Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter. The best movie based on a video game is the one that really captured the feeling of playing a video game, by embracing the parts usually left behind in movie adaptations, undeveloped characters and repetitive story structure, and married them to the impossible visuals that video games excel at. That movie is The Matrix.
Most video game characters are great visuals and nothing else. For the main characters, this lack of personality is an asset, in fact, because the player can project his or her personality onto the character and play as themselves. That’s why the main character of The Legend of Zelda isn’t technically named Link. His name is whatever name the player wants to gives him. And that’s why he doesn’t speak, so that the player can fill in his dialogue. (You can’t pick Link’s gender, unfortunately, but an enterprising father is working on that.)
For most movies, having an empty shell as a lead would be a problem. But The Matrix uses that trope to its advantage. Thomas Anderson (Keeanu Reeves) is an empty man, one who is looking for someone to literally tell him who he is. Is he Neo, badass computer hacker, or is he the One, a messianic figure of rebellion? Or is he just another cog in the corporate machine? Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the Agents, and the Oracle (Gloria Foster) keep telling him who he is and who he isn’t, and in the end he survives and triumphs because Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) projects her need for him to be her savior into him, giving him an extra life and a cheat code.
It’s not just the main character, though. The movie is populated with video game archetypes. There’s the mentor, Morpheus, who teaches Neo how to play the game. There’s Trinity as a player two character. There’s the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar to instruct the hero which way to turn and what his new missions are. And of course there’s an end boss.
The climactic fight with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) on the empty subway platform is clearly a boss fight, shot and staged as a Street Fighter II level, two guys fighting in one long plane, using punches, kicks, and special attacks. When Neo kills Agent Smith, only for Agent Smith to immediately pop up again, it’s a red flag that the entire fight was somewhat pointless, except that a video game needs a boss fight at the end.
Video games need an end boss because they are built on repetition. The player makes their way through levels that vary only in details designed to add increasing complexity as the player improves, leading to said end boss. To go back to the Zelda example, it’s fun to explore eight dungeons, find eight new weapons, and defeat eight bosses, all to collect parts of the same stone, but watching someone else do that can be boring. In the theoretical Zelda movie, all of this would be knocked out in a five minute montage.
But The Matrix takes that repetitive structure and builds their whole movie around it. The opening action sequence with Trinity is the equivalent of the opening of Metroid Prime before Samus Aran loses all of her upgrades, a sequence to show all the cool things the player will eventually get to do, but has to earn first. After that, Neo alternates between increasingly difficult fetch quests and power boosts, starting when he’s a powerless office worker who can’t even climb around a building, to the training montage, after which he knows kung fu. Then he can go see the Oracle and outrun an agent. Then he can rescue Morpheus and outfight an agent with help from Trinity. Then he can outfight one on his own. Then he can blow them up by the bunches. Each time it’s the same enemy over and over and over again, Neo just gets better at fighting them.
The amazing thing is that The Matrix appropriates video game characters and story structure without being about video games really at all. Thomas Anderson is a programmer, but he’s not shown to be a gamer. There are obvious similarities to Tron, another movie about a man trapped in a computer simulation, but Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) designed games he was then forced to play within. There’s no such direct tie to video games here. The other major difference is that the fake world in Tron is a dystopian nightmare, while in The Matrix the fake would is a mundane recreation of 1999, and it’s the real world that’s nightmarish.
Of course, The Matrix shares weaknesses with video games as well as strengths, especially in the sequels. There’s way too many cut scenes of characters we don’t care about explaining backstory we can’t understand while we impatiently wait for another fight on top of a moving trailer. Neo has gained so many power-ups in the first movie that the sequels must first invent ridiculous new challenges for him then nerf him so there’s still conflict. And then there’s the reintroduction of Agent Smith. My brother called it walking out the theater: Agent Smith’s footsteps were like Proto Man’s whistle in Mega Man 3: every time you heard it, it meant another long pointless fight scene we had to sit through to get back to the thing we wanted to see.
However, live by the video game, die by the video game. Being the best adaptation of video games to the screen means adapting all of it, warts and all. The Matrix just wouldn’t feel like a video game without tedious loading screens, absurd dialogue, and just enough plot to get to another fight sequence. But The Matrix has it all, and because it captures the thrill of the medium better than another film, The Matrix is the best video game movie by far.