Saturday, February 16, 2008

Game On: A Brief History of Video Game Films

Coming up in March at the library we’re celebrating Teen Tech Month, which is an annual American Library Association event. Planning for this has had me thinking about video game movies a great deal, and pondering the spectrum of classics to bombs (of which there are many). Truth be told, video game films would probably make for a great all-night marathon, but we’ve already got one of those headed our way in April : ) However, you can always have your own marathon at home, and here are just a few titles you might want to have at the ready . . .

D.O.A. – Dead or Alive (2007) – Haven’t seen it, and don’t plan to. You guys are on your own here : )

Double Dragon (1994) – In a future Los Angeles devastated by catastrophic earthquakes, an evil business tycoon/martial arts master named Koga Shuko (Robert Patrick) fights two brothers also trained in the martial arts (Scott Wolf and Mark Dacascos) for possession of a magical amulet. I saw this movie during its cable run, and remember being thoroughly unimpressed. I confess that I have only vague memories of the game, so I can’t vouch for the faithfulness of the film. From what I recall there were indeed two fighters (hence the “double”), but beyond that I haven’t a clue. That being said, I would have to think that most fans would have preferred a better match-up than the T-1000 vs. the star of Party of Five. Incredibly, this film does have a cult following, so you’d better watch it. After all, you wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself at the next social gathering where conversation inevitably turns to this subject!

Joysticks (1983) – I haven’t seen this since the 80’s, so my memories are a little fuzzy, but I’m sure I would probably love it for the nostalgia factor. This is really nothing more than a Porky’s clone, set in a video arcade. And it’s got Joe Don Baker! For a more thorough review, be sure to corner Rob at the next Fantasmo as he actually saw this one in the theater!

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) – I just saw this earlier in the month, and it is an absolute masterpiece. The true story of a high school science teacher who challenges the world Donkey Kong record of a hot sauce magnate. This may be the best film you ever see. The profile on the holder of the world Missile Command high score alone is worth the price of admission. And who knew all classic video games had a kill screen where the game abruptly ends due to lack of memory?!? I usually couldn’t make it past the 3rd screen on Kong (and many other games), so there was never any danger of my discovering this fascinating piece of information.

Mortal Kombat (1995) – If you go in with no expectations this is actually a fairly enjoyable (and entirely forgettable) film. Christopher Lambert leads a mostly no-name cast in the adaptation of one of the most wildly popular video games of the 90’s. There’s plenty of fighting amongst the characters from the game to thumping techno, which is a good thing as it diverts attention from the threadbare plot. What’s disappointing is that the hallmark of the game, ridiculously graphic finishing moves, is nowhere in sight. The makers of the film wanted to pack in a youthful audience, so the proceedings were toned down to achieve a PG-13. Given that this was directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, AVP, Soldier), the toning down of source material and fluff approach is not at all surprising (full confession: I do think the first 30 minutes or so of his Event Horizon are pretty great, but things go south quickly). Either way, it’s an okay way to pass an afternoon . . . if for no other reason than to witness another cheesy Lambert performance.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) – Wow this one is bad. You know there’s serious trouble if even Christopher Lambert couldn’t be coaxed back. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Nightmares (1983) – This is actually an anthology film featuring a bunch of great genre stars. The segment on video games stars a pre-Breakfast Club Emilio Estevez as a video game wizard obsessed with conquering the game Bishop of Battle. Unfortunately, when he reaches the high score the machine takes things personally! Perfectly encapsulates a moment in time where beating high scores on these machines was a real craze. Estevez’s character would be right at home in King of Kong! A really fun tale, in a really fun little movie.

Street Fighter (1994) – Some background here. In my college years I went to school in a very remote, small town that had a single run down theater in a dilapidated strip mall. What movies the place got (typically Hollywood’s lamest offerings) were almost always second run . . . with a couple of exceptions. For some strange reason the place ALWAYS got Van Damme and Seagal films first run. So in this bizarro universe, Van Damme flicks became event films for my friends and I (please bear in mind we were absolutely aware of how awful they mostly were). Only in that crazy place could the excitement in the air over an opening day screening of Lionheart or Double Impact have been positively palpable! On an unrelated note, another memorable first run film we got was Highlander 2: The Quickening . . . seriously, opening day there drew Episode I like crowds. Oh the disappointment. But I digress.

Back on task. So, as was customary, we excitedly went to see this turkey on opening day. I’ve gotta tell you, even for a Van Damme film this one is pretty terrible. Part of this is due to the fact it’s more geared toward a younger audience than typical Van Damme fare (it’s rated PG-13). Really, you take away the full-blown fight sequences from a Van Damme film and, with the exception of maybe Timecop or Universal Soldier, you don’t have a whole lot left. What was even more unbelievable was that this thing was sold as a legitimate blockbuster. It was unleashed with a lot of publicity, and boasted a pretty big budget for a Van Damme vehicle. They even got the great Raul Julia to play M. Bison! Unfortunately none of the supposed “magic” shows up on the screen. A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

On a side note, the wishful thinking did not stop with Street Fighter’s theatrical release. In the days of laserdisc, this was released as a Universal “Signature Edition” multi-disc set (the content of which has been ported over to the existing DVD). You’ve got to understand, these “Signature Edition” sets were exclusively reserved for prestige titles (e.g. Jaws). To put something like Street Fighter in this category was unbelievable. It almost made me think perhaps I’d missed some hidden brilliance the first time around . . . luckily my better judgment prevailed (still haven’t seen this since opening day). I have to give the marketing folks at Universal an A for effort. Their campaign translated into a pretty decent monetary haul for a film that should have, by even the most lenient standards, been consigned to oblivion from the word go.

Super Mario Bros. (1993) – Here is a train wreck of a different sort. There’s no question this film is absolutely terrible, and probably devastating to the legion of Mario fans out there. However, unlike mediocre flotsam such as Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros. is epic in its failure. Even a passing glance at the film reveals that the studio poured heaps of money into the production. The set design is incredible (if grim and inappropriate), and the cast is A-list all the way. Bob Hoskins as Mario. Not since Shelley Duvall essayed Olive Oil on the big screen had there been such a perfect example of someone being “born” to play a particular role. John Leguizamo as Luigi. I’m not a big fan, but the guy has charisma. And Dennis Hopper as King Koopa. Okay this is just plain crazy. I understand that Hopper was cast as the bad guy in a plethora of 90’s pop films, but putting him in Mario Bros. is really a stretch. From Easy Rider to Blue Velvet to Super Mario Bros. Wow. All this, plus you get folks like Fisher Stevens and Lance Henriksen thrown in for good measure. Quite the stew.

Frankly, the above factors alone warrant a screening, but you also get a plot that is decidedly not in the fun spirit of the game. Yeah, the Mario Bros. are trying to rescue a princess, but to do so they have to make their way through an underground, dystopian nightmare called Dinohattan. I know in the game Mario has to travel through pipes (he’s a plumber after all), but Nintendo didn’t emphasize the presence of rats and raw sewage. You have to give the creative folks behind this credit for approaching the material with a decidedly unique (if unsettling) take. It may not have reaped box office rewards, but it sure is a visually interesting mess. At least, for better or worse, it is memorable.

TRON (1982) – I’ve written in detail about this before here on the blog (http://fantasmocinema.blogspot.com/2007/08/greetings-program-farewell-to-summer-of.html), so I won’t bother repeating the same old song again. Suffice it to say, this may be the greatest video game film of them all. Great cast, still great effects, and a truly revolutionary concept. And here’s something to make you fans (myself included) weep . . . or at least wish you lived in Seattle. The last surviving Cinerama theater is having a 70mm film festival (http://www.cinerama.com/special_events.asp) which includes screenings of TRON, 2001, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. I was lucky enough to be out there several years ago, and saw Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade in 70mm. It was truly an experience. Can only imagine what TRON would be like!

So, there’s a quick list of notable video game films you should (mostly) check out. Bon appétit!

2 comments:

Vern said...

Don't forget SILENT HILL. I really liked this movie even while seeing it at a packed preview screening where the rest of the crowd was violently opposed to the movie from early on, and angrily yelling at the screen throughout. It has a weird feel with really stilted dialogue and strange behavior that I assume comes from the video game - characters have little puzzles to solve and do weird things like grab onto a wire to swing across a hole. But I'm not familiar with the video game so to me it reminded me more of dubbed Italian horror movies.

And that's what I love about the movie, it has an insane dream logic more reminiscent of Argento's INFERNO than anything most modern horror fans would know to compare it to. But also with the aid of a big budget and modern effects it has a hell of a look, real strong atmosphere and some bizarre dream creatures that come out of nowhere.

It's definitely flawed, and you can tell that it was cut down from a much longer movie, but there's really nothing like it. I think it's misunderstood. Some day it will get a better reputation. Or if not I will secretly watch it and not tell anybody so they won't make fun of me.

Jim Blanton said...

Hey Vern,
Can't believe I completely forgot that one. I haven't seen it, but read a review not long ago that sold me on it (just never got back around to picking it up). I was a fan of the game (only played the first one), and it too had a great atmosphere.

I think the reason I wasn't excited about it initially was because of the mishandling of Resident Evil (which I also inadvertenly omitted from the list). When I saw Silent Hill was coming out, I just figured it would be another reject cashing in on the title.

Hearing that it's reminiscent of Argento's Inferno makes me want to run out and get it now! Even though I think his films can be a bit uneven at times, I love the dream-like atmsophere he captures as you mention. No one does that better.