Five of the Best: Films about games
Reel talk.by Robert Purchese
Five of the Best is a weekly series about the bits of games we overlook, those poor old things. I'm talking about crowds, potions, mountains, hands - things we barely notice at the time but can recall years later because they're so important to the overall memory of the game.
Now is the time to celebrate them - you and me both! I will share my memories but I'm just as eager to hear yours, so please share them in the comments below. We've had some great discussions in our other Five of the Best pieces.
Today: films about games! Or films heavily influenced by games and gaming. And note: the games themselves don't have to actually exist. That opens the remit up a bit, doesn't it? But the films have to exist otherwise this would be a very strange article indeed. Happy Friday!
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Real talk: this film is way better than it has any right to be. Or maybe not. You've got the Zero Effect director in charge, and a cast that is absolutely filled with charm. At the heart of it, though, is a brilliant little examination of games and the ways that they transform their players.
The first Jumanji was about a board game, wasn't it? This reboot transforms it into a sort of PS1-era game - there's even a reference, I think, to the way OddWorld did menus at one point. A bunch of kids are drawn into an adventure game that turns out to be an alternate universe sort of deal. But the most brilliant thing is that the classes of character they end up playing as all reveal aspects of their personalities that were otherwise a bit inchoate. That's the power of games right there!
Oh yes, and it's extremely funny too.
I love The Matrix, it's one of my favourite films. I still take the mickey out of how Neo runs around the office, still say things like "ignorance is bliss" and "not like this" and "it's got everything you need / no it hasn't got everything you need...". And it was 21 years ago now.
I loved how it was a film about outsiders sticking it to the man. I loved how it was about geeky people, people a bit like me. Keanu wasn't some beefed up jock but a skinny, pale programmer who used his brains to overcome the baddies, albeit in a very eye-catching kung-fu way.
It was the ultimate gaming fantasy, really. The world you live in is actually a virtual reality game and one day you wake up and realise it. Suddenly you can learn, in seconds, the kind of skills which took years to master before, like kung fu. Then, you realise you can bend the laws of the world itself. Whoa!
It's even paced like a game, with Neo gaining experience and unlocking new abilities as he goes along, until finally he has enough power to overcome the bosses who bashed him up at the beginning. The only downside of the Matrix, really, is I measure all potential virtual reality experiences next to it.
Disney launched Tron against E.T. in a bid to become the big family film of 1982, and my dad decided our family would go see Tron - partly because we always had to be a bit different, partly because he thought Spielberg's film looked a bit sappy, and partly because, as a science teacher, he thought literally anything to do with computers was cool. On that last point, at least, Tron proved him right.
The film takes us and its heroes inside a computer world, where a despotic artificial intelligence is on the rise and where programs are people who play deadly video games against each other. It's a silly, exciting adventure elevated by its incredible visual design. Combining early 3D computer graphics with bleached, grainy film footage and luminous, hand-painted backlit animation - and boasting designs by Syd Mead and Jean "Moebius" Giraud - Tron is an amazing spectacle, one of the great works of cinematic futurism, right up there with Metropolis and Blade Runner. Imagine seeing that in the cinema, as a games-mad 8-year-old!
Writer-director Steven Lisberger first had the idea for Tron when he saw the most basic of games, Pong, in 1976. What he perceived in those dots and lines - the world that he imagined powered them - would go on to have a profound impact of the games of the future. What a testament to the power of the medium to fire the imagination that is.
The Last Starfighter
Oh I've still got such a soft spot for this one. You've got b-movie royalty in Dan O'Herlihy and Catherine Mary Stewart, matched with sci-fi superstar Ron Cobb and matched by some of the very first CGI visuals used in film - all tied in with an only slightly hokey story that could only have been forged in the great video game boom of the early 80s. A young player is plucked from obscurity to fight among the stars and save the fates of an alien race. It's still a great watch, though the scenes with melty robot replica Beta have maintained their ability to really, really freak me out.
Okay, I'll admit I haven't actually endured this one all the way through despite several attempts, but the trailer's so wonderful I've watched it plenty of times over the last few years. Brainscan is peak VHS beauty, with the opportunistic casting of Terminator 2's heartthrob Edward Furlong matched with a schlocky premise, questionable special effects and Frank goddamn Langella. Oh, and get this fact fans - T.Ryder Smith, who plays The Trickster, would later go on to voice Sander Cohen in BioShock. The more you know!