With the recent arrival of Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider reboot and Ernest Cline’s seminal sci-fi novel Ready Player One being brought imminently to the screen by Steven Spielberg, it’s worth noting that although both titles are firmly rooted in gaming culture, the anticipatory buzz around the two has been quite different.
The Lara Croft adventure is written around the bestselling series of Tomb Raider games of course, and straight up cinematic conversions of console button-mashers have fared notably badly over the years. While each attempt will rightly have its fans, there’s something about porting the interactive gameplay experience to a passive, spectative one which continues to prove troublesome for writers and directors alike. Ready Player One however, is a story about the experience and immersion of gaming and popular culture, but without being an adaptation of a specific title itself. While that’s a technique which is used less in the film industry, it’s a one which often yields more solid results in the long-run.
Here, we take a look at five movies about gaming, which weren’t based on branded games…
War Games (1983)
Yes, all the way back the days of Kajagoogoo, before Bob Hoskins had even thought of going into the inter-dimensional plumbing trade, director John Badham brought us War Games. Ostensibly a family-friendly cold war thriller, Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a young slacker who inadvertently hacks into NORAD and begins a strategy game with its fledgling Artificial Intelligence computer, choosing the somewhat ambiguously titled ‘Global Thermonuclear War’. Since David is too naive to realise what he’s done, and since the ‘War Operation Plan Response’ AI hasn’t yet developed the analytical skill to realise it’s up against a bored high-schooler rather than a genuine threat, the world is very soon on the brink of actual nuclear armageddon.
Like many allegorical cyber-stories, this one plays fast and loose with the viewers’ familiarity (at that time, at least) of the technology involved. But rather than being a cautionary tale of Scary Computers Are Scary, War Games has, at its core, a message of understanding and responsibility. That games are fine when everyone knows the rules and limitations, but if one of the players isn’t aware of the boundaries, consequences in the real-world could be Game Over in a more definite sense (even if it’s not the planet at stake). Given the news cycles over the decades between then and now, that seems preachy on one hand, but perhaps oddly prescient on the other…
Swaggering brazenly into our list is Mark Nelvedine and Brian Taylor’s Crank. Because when you’re not sure whether an audience will be up for your cinematic deconstruction of sandbox and beat ’em up video games, the only course of action is to put Jason Statham front and centre so that it’s got a secondary shelf-life as an action flick. As a hitman under the auspices of a shady LA crime syndicate, Chev Chelios (Statham) is injected with an experimental drug which will slow his heart to fatal levels unless he keeps his adrenaline levels up. Running all over the city completing tasks in an attempt to confront his would-be-executioners, Chev gets into all manner of pulse-raising scrapes and shenanigans, as well as collecting power-ups in the form of energy drinks and narcotics.
Despite the 8-bit graphical homages inserted into the run-time, this is effectively a theatrical rendering of a Grand Theft Auto game, but with a tighter, more focused (and let’s face it, more silly) story. Real world motivations and physics do not apply here. The plot is as ludicrous as the action set-pieces and as they escalate, the audience only has to believe that it’s happening within the confines of the film. The real stroke of Nelvedine/Taylor’s genius is that Chelios doesn’t realise he’s a character in a video game, lending Crank a meta edge as we see the foibles of game-structure translated into internal film-logic.
And while it’s not a particularly subtle homage to the culture, it’s just nice to be able to enjoy a Statham movie on more than one level…
Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)
Also playing with the idea of a film protagonist not realising they’re actually a character in a video game is Doug Liman’s Edge Of Tomorrow (aka Live. Die. Repeat.). Full-on action/sci-fi shooters tend to attract a certain demographic of cast member, but this cracks the mould a little with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt as Major William Cage and Sgt Rita Vrataski respectively, the latter of whom has a lot of experience with despatching the film’s alien invaders, the former of whom does not. This gives rise to a lot of the outright violent slapstick, as a convoluted plot-device involving the aliens being able to reset time means that each time Cage is killed in the line of duty, he wakes up again at the start of the day to have another go. Basically, Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day.
Even more so than in Crank, the central conceit of ‘die / respawn / try again’ means that we’re essentially watching someone playing a game for two hours (naturally, the structure also works in the concept of a finite number of lives for some third-act tension). But rather than take the route of the branded adaptations where our hero/heroine escapes each level on the first attempt and by the skin of their teeth, this more accurately represents what gaming means to many of us: repetition and dogged perseverance.
And because the overarching story has little more to offer than ‘save the world from aliens’, it’s not bogged down by the need to work in any larger themes. Cage succeeds by learning from past mistakes and altering his tactics accordingly, but his ultimate goal is still just to kill the aliens. Edge Of Tomorrow could well be the perfect synthesis of game and film.
Hardcore Henry (2015)
Taking these stylistic techniques more as a challenge than an inspiration is Hardcore Henry. Writer/director Ilya Naishuller ramps up the crossover concept to headache-inducing proportions, presenting his film entirely as a first-person shooter in which we follow the eponymous hero (various cast members as all we usually see are Henry’s hands) as he awakes in a laboratory and has his cybernetic backstory, exposition and current mission explained to him by scientist and love-interest Estelle (Haley Bennett). Naturally, a shoot-out occurs almost immediately, and the rest of the film follows Henry’s escalating battle to reclaim his memories and purpose from the psychokinetic villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), saving Estelle in the process.
This feature is, frankly, insane. Filmed entirely in first-person with modified GoPro cameras, the resulting amount of shaky-cam is intensified by the size of the screen upon which the movie is watched. It’s made all the more baffling by the casting of Sharlto Copley as non-player-character Jimmy, who steps in at various points (and in a multitude of guises) to assist Henry in the levels of his journey. And of course there’s a song-and-dance number, because the casting budget has paid for Copley so why wouldn’t a film maker want to get full value for money from that?
More importantly though, Hardcore Henry works for the same reason as Edge of Tomorrow – it’s a remarkably pure translation of the gaming experience for cinematic audiences, and the fewer frags it gives, the more fun it has in the process.
Well okay, this doesn’t work all the time, and what Jason Statham gives with one hand, Gerard Butler takes away with the other (Exhibit A: Snatch vs RocknRolla). Gamer sees Butler star as Kable, a former soldier on death-row whose brain has been implanted with nanotechnology. This turns him into the real life avatar in a shoot’em up controlled remotely by a wealthy 17yr old player (brought to the screen by Logan Lerman), to public spectator delight. Fighting against similarly controlled fellow inmates, if a participant can survive 30 deathmatches, they’ll be released from the program and freed from prison – but before Kable gets that chance, he begins to uncover the conspiracy behind his own place in the whole program.
Another entry from Crank‘s team of Nelvedine/Taylor, this perhaps tries to spin too many genre-plates at once. While there are echoes of The Matrix in here, the fact that Kable knows from the outset that he’s a participant (along with his plot-heavy backstory) means that it’s closer in execution to The Running Man, only nowhere near as arch. Or fun. The gaming-core of the film takes a back seat to standard action-thriller fare, and the end result is unsatisfying and oddly unmemorable.
While the choices we’ve covered here haven’t received universal acclaim, it should be noted that the first four at least have garnered more praise than the average game-to-movie adaptation. Perhaps it’s a case of not being bound to an existing franchise, or perhaps audience expectations are freer when they’re meeting characters for the first time.
For obvious reasons, Ready Player One won’t be as gleefully violent as some of the above, but with the legendary Steven Spielberg at the helm it should be every bit as exciting.
Will a visual version of Ernest Cline’s story bring gaming further into the mainstream, or is it already so much a part of our culture that a film like this is guaranteed to find its audience? By the end of March, we’ll know if Ready Player One has scored highly enough to have earned its initials in the hall of fame…