By Drew Taylor | The Playlist November 1, 2012 at 12:04PM
Movie: "Gamer" (Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
Concept: In the future, teens control real-life video game avatars (like hardened Gerard Butler) who are death row inmates. Or something.
Video Game-y Qualities: The first movie to try and capture, on a purely visceral level, the experience of first-person shooters, a style and genre of video games exemplified by the wildly popular "Call of Duty" games. (The movie based on one of the original first-person shooters, "Doom," starring The Rock, featured an extended sequence that replicated the experience but it was more gimmicky than anything else.) It also plays into the wired-in nature of the aforementioned Internet-based video games like "World of Warcraft," in which players can reshape their identity through complex avatars, and the phenomenon of teenage kids beating grown adults asses online. (Not that that has ever happened to us, of course.) And there are a couple of amazing sequences that really get the blood going, but by and large the directing team of Neveldine and Taylor (responsible for the similarly game-indebted "Crank" films) mistake a nonstop frenzy of violence over nuance and stealth, characteristics that are just as emphasized in the world of first-person shooters. Also, the sci-fi narrative is muddled and confusing and borrows liberally from "Death Race 2000" without that film's sly social commentary. Plus, Gerard Butler is less emotive than most video game characters.
Worth Your Quarters? Nope. Although there is a sequence where Michael C. Hall, as the evil video game designer, does a crazy dance. But you can probably find that on YouTube.
Concept: At some point in the future a new kind of engine has replaced the internal combustion one, leaving high-stakes, high-speed races as the entertainment of the day. One racer, named Speed (Emile Hirsch), hopes to win it all.
Video Game-y Qualities: This is probably as close to a "Mario Kart" major motion picture as we're ever going to get. That Nintendo franchise, which "Wreck-It Ralph" openly riffs on in the film's "Sugar Rush" sequences, is known for its kaleidoscopic color scheme and caffeinated pacing, both of which "Speed Racer" share in spades. There's also a sequence early in the film where Speed is "racing" the ghost of his older brother, who died tragically and whose record Speed is trying to beat. It's like when you choose to "replay" your previous lap on a racing game for higher points. There's also never been a visual equivalent to video games in quite the same way "Speed Racer" was – the Wachowskis were going for the look of the Japanese anime the film was ostensibly based on, so they photographed everything independently and composited them together so that nothing would have depth. It would look very flat – like a piece of two dimensional animation. Or, as it were, an old-school videogame. Whole sequences, too, are structured like video game levels – when a character crosses a finish line you practically sit in rapt anticipation of the final score (and the knowledge of whether or not you'll advance to the next level). Visually unparalleled, "Speed Racer" was criminally overlooked upon its initial release but has gained a sizable cult following (and not just by hardcore drug users, either) in the years since, culminating last year with an appearance on a Time Magazine list of the Best Sports Movies ever.
Worth Your Quarters? Yes. Watching/playing "Speed Racer" will only make you want to watch/play again and just like with video games, it's more fun with friends.
Concept: Both films question reality and give heroes a chance to go on an existential journey to discover the truth about themselves and the world around them. Also: weird robots.
Video Game-y Qualities: Both "The Matrix" and "eXistenZ," arguably the two greatest movies about virtual reality and the way that video games have the potential to disrupt our understanding of reality, were released in 1999, on the cusp of a new millennium, at what seemed like the height of filmmaking that incorporated wild experimentation into commercial viable product. Both are heady and existential and ask the same question – what if we aren't playing a video game but rather the video game is playing us? In "eXistenZ," the world has come under the spell of a video game that resembles a small squishy embryo (that you hook up via an umbilical chord), which results in our heroes (unlikely duo Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law) going on a very video game-ish quest to discover the truth, in which they follow-up on mysteries, collect items (like a gun made out of bone), and face certain death. With "The Matrix," the world is revealed to be one large video game, controlled by evil robot overlords, a revelation that causes a lone warrior (Keanu Reeves) to reshape reality as he sees fit -- mostly by engaging in a bunch of sequences that resemble video game passages. "The Matrix" is noteworthy for its synthesis of multiple video game platforms, like the first-person shooter elements of the infamous lobby shoot-out to the more fighting game scenario of his showdown with Agent Smith. You could tell that the Wachowskis were actually gamers, unlike Cronenberg, who approaches the material with a more detached, icily intellectualized approach (that more resembles a Role Playing Game than anything else). In a case of the tail wagging the dog, "The Matrix" would inspire an online world and an expansive video game called "Enter the Matrix," which would tie the original film in with its two (underwhelming) sequels, while the "bullet time" sequence from "The Matrix" would go on to become a video game staple, most notably in the "Max Payne" series. Both films hit right before video games started getting attention as a serious cultural art form. They're both philosophical cautionary fables and button-mashing blasts.
Worth Your Quarters? Yes. These two films are the height of video game-inspired cinema.