Video game adaptations are everywhere these days. In the past few years, we’ve gotten movies or shows featuring Sonic the Hedgehog, the adventuring bros from Uncharted, two more disappointing Resident Evil adaptations, and the animated exploits of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is about to hit theaters, while one of the most acclaimed TV shows of 2023 is HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us video game.
Movies about video games, however, are still pretty rare and are usually marketed as straightforward genre pictures like a road movie or a zany comedy. That all changes with the Apple TV+ movie Tetris, which fully embraces its video game biopic origins as it chronicles the creation and rise of one of the most popular video games ever. If you enjoyed that movie, you should check out these 5 underrated films about video games.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)
The year is 1984, and Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is a low-level computer programmer trying to make it big with a video game of his own creation. His ambitions are curtailed by a disastrous personal life that involves a dead mother, an absentee father, an uncaring pre-Nintendo video game industry, and a conspiracy theory-obsessed friend, Colin (Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 3‘s Will Poulter) who all can either help Stefan realize his dreams or kill him. It just depends on which path you choose.
One of the few interactive movies out there, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch made a splash when it premiered at the end of 2018. It allowed Netflix subscribers to choose the destiny of its lead character, by presenting Choose Your Own Adventure options that could be selected with the touch of a button. Want Stefan to kill his father? Just select “A” and the narrative will change based on Stefan’s, and the audience’s, decision. The movie is a rare look at the video game industry in the early 19080s, and its convincing replication of the early ’80s lends an authenticity to it that helps sell its often bizarre narrative twists and turns. It’s not for everyone, but if you want something a bit different, you can’t go wrong with Bandersnatch.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is streaming on Netflix.
Cloak & Dagger (1984)
No, this isn’t the Freeform TV adaptation of the semi-popular Marvel Comics superhero duo. Cloak & Dagger is a largely forgotten movie starring a post-E.T. Henry Thomas as a young kid, Davey, who plays a popular video game RPG, Cloak & Dagger, and idolizes the game’s main character, super-spy Jack Flack, With his best friend Kim, Davey witnesses the murder of a stranger. Before he dies, the man uses his last few moments to give Davey a Cloak & Dagger video game cartridge, which contains top-secret military secrets. The bad guys soon realize Davey has the cartridge and chase him around San Antonio.
Cloak & Dagger is a B-grade WarGames copy, with considerably lesser stakes involved and a plot that just doesn’t make sense. But it’s charming as heck, and it’s a rare kids’ film that remembers it’s fun to get make-believe and get lost in a made-up world. As Davey, Henry Thomas still possesses that mixture of innocence and stubbornness that made him a star in E.T., and Dabney Coleman is surprisingly effective as Jack Flack, who appears as Davey’s imaginary friend. It’s not the best film ever made, but it doesn’t have to be.
You can rent Cloak & Dagger on Prime Video and other digital vendors.
The Wizard (1989)
If you were a kid in 1989, The Wizard was the coolest movie ever made. The movie starred Fred Savage, who was still charming audiences in The Wonder Years, as a protective older brother to Jimmy, a video game savant who is still dealing with the death of his twin sister Jennifer. Eager to avoid Jimmy’s impending entry into a mental institution, they decide to run away, eventually meeting up with Haley, who informs the brothers of an upcoming video game tournament. The prize? $50,000 to the victor. The three kids embark on a road trip to Reno to win the tournament and prove Jimmy doesn’t need to be sent away to heal his emotional trauma.
This movie isn’t really that good; the plot is creaky and absurd, and the way it deals with PTSD is borderline offensive. Yet the film is carried by Savage, Luke Edwards as the largely mute Jimmy, and future Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis as Haley. Plus, it’s a great snapshot of where video games were in 1989: deep into the NES years and not yet involved in the 16-bit wars. The movie culminates with Jimmy playing Super Mario Bros. 3, which hadn’t been released yet in the U.S., and for many kids like myself, that was the only way to get a first look at one of the most anticipated games of the year.
You can rent The Wizard on Prime Video and other digital vendors.
Tron: Legacy (2010)
I’ll admit that Tron: Legacy is better in retrospect than it was when I first watched it. Back in 2010, it seemed like a cold, distant revival of a failed movie that was more appreciated for its technological advances (Tron’s visual effects were groundbreaking for its time) than for its storytelling. Time has been kinder to the largely forgotten sequel, in part due to director Joseph Kosinski’s higher profile (he directed the 2022 megahit Top Gun: Maverick) and a greater appreciation for what the movie was trying to do: look and sound cool, without thinking too much about it.
Tron: Legacy‘s plot is fairly simple: Sam Flynn, the son of the original movie’s protagonist Kevin (Jeff Bridges, who returns to the role he played in the original) searches for his long-lost father in the Grid, a fully digital landscape with evil computer programs who want to crossover into the real world. It’s a standard-issue blockbuster story, but what makes Legacy so watchable are the spectacular visual effects, which paint a stylized world filled with shimmering light blue 1s and 0s, and the musical score by Daft Punk, which give the movie a thumping kick that makes the whole thing impossibly cool and enjoyable.
You can stream Tron: Legacy on Disney+.
1999 was the year movies messed with our minds. The Matrix famously came out the year, but so did the just-as-good underrated thriller The Thirteenth Floor. Completing the trifecta was David Cronenberg’s little mindfuck of a movie, eXistenZ, which you knew was trippy even by the title, which refused all rules of proper capitalization. The movie stars Jennifer Jason Leigh (at the height of her ’90s coolness era) as Allegra Gellar, a VR video game developer who is life at risk by the Realists, a fanatical group who oppose Gellar’s revolutionary virtual reality creations.
If you’ve ever seen a David Cronenberg film, you know there’s a lot more to eXistenz than just that. Throw in bio-ports that organically plug you into a machine, various scenes of body horror that are just absolutely disgusting, and a young Jude Law as Gellar’s lover/accomplice, and you have a quintessential “what is reality?” sci-fi movie that only the late ’90s could produce. With the rise of AI and the continuing evolution of virtual reality, eXistenZ is more timely than ever, and one of the best movies about how video games can allow an escape from reality, only in this movie, it comes at a high cost.
You can stream eXistenZ on Paramount+.
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