Last weekend, Adam Sandler’s new film Pixels hit theaters — but it failed to make a big splash. While Sony Pictures was probably banking on adults bringing kids to see this family-friendly film, it seems like the arcade game nostalgia it promoted wasn’t enough to overcome the almost universally poor reviews from critics. And truth be told, films about video games aren’t that easy for Hollywood to get right.
It’s not like movies adapted from video games — those have a story and beloved characters to pull from. Video game movies have to tap into what it feels like to play without being interactive. And somewhere between the special effects, the crazy costumes and the larger-than-life sets, the filmmakers behind these moves have to tell an interesting story. It’s not easy. But there are some filmmakers who have risen to the occasion. Here are 5 films about video games that will keep you seriously entertained.
1. Tron (1982)
Is there a better movie about the magic and mayhem of video games than Tron? It’s hard to think of one. This ’80s classic offers up thrills and adventure at every turn. Jeff Bridges stars as Kevin Flynn, who butts head with fellow engineer Ed (David Warner) and is subsequently sent into his computer’s mainframe. There, he ends up fighting for survival within a game-like digital Grid. Even though the film is over 30 years old, the special effects are still memorably effective. The action sequences closely mimic something you’d see in a futuristic video game — but the film relies on its exciting story to really keep the momentum going. Tron has built up a loyal following over the years as a film that both emulates and celebrates the best adventure that video games have to offer.
2. Cloak & Dagger (1984)
Video games offer some of the best forms of escapism — when we play them, we can disappear into another world for as long as we choose. In Cloak & Dagger, little Davey (E.T‘s Henry Thomas) does just that in an attempt to deal with the untimely loss of his parents. But his love for the Atari game that’s caught his attention takes a dangerous turn when he becomes unwittingly caught up in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between the FBI and the spies they’re tracking. Reality and video game seem to mix for Davey in this effective thriller, which plays on confusion felt by both Davey and his adult counterparts due to the game, which was meant to be part of a secret code. Just like in a video game, the closer Davey gets to the conclusion, the higher the stakes get — which makes this an unpredictable, and thoroughly enjoyable adventure.
3. The Last Starfighter (1984)
Imagine being approached by the creator of your favorite video game, who then invites you into the world he’s built. That’s the premise of The Last Starfighter. While completely implausible, this space adventure is a rousing, entertaining fantasy that sweeps you up into its world, just like a video game would. It stars Lance Guest as Alex, the young man who masters a video game and then finds himself riding a spaceship and trying to save an intergalactic society. Sure, the CGI and makeup are a little bit cheesy. But for their time, they’re impressive — and now, the out-of-date effects give the film an extra-fantastical layer. The Last Starfighter is a film for video game fans with big imaginations and a hankering for a little nostalgia.
4. The Wizard (1989)
This coming-of-age drama tapped deep into gaming culture in a way few films before it managed to do. The Wizard follows a small group of young kids who run away to California and hustle money by playing video games. Like Cloak & Dagger, it showcases how children can use video games to escape from the harsh realities of life — in Jimmy’s (Luke Edward) case, it’s trauma resulting from his sister’s death. And it shows that playing video games isn’t just a way for kids to pass time – it’s a lifestyle, one that forges friendships and can even build life skills. While it’s not a perfect film, and lays on a heavy-handed message more than once, The Wizard is full of nostalgic games and technology from the end of the 20th century, and a perfect film for anyone willing to revisit a simpler time in video game history.
5. eXistenZ (1999)
While most of the films on this list celebrate the magic of video games, this David Cronenberg thriller shows the downside of living your life tethered to gaming technology. eXistenZ imagines a futuristic world in which virtual reality has become a way of life — so much so that gaming consoles now attach directly to human organs. As you can probably guess, this technological advance has some dangerous consequences. Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Ted (Jude Law) try to cut the chord for good, but find themselves wading through a world in which reality becomes increasingly distorted. Every frame of eXistenZ is filled with an eery, noir mood that isn’t so much reminiscent of video games, but a horror film. And it’s a welcome reminder that our technological obsession could easily get out of hand.