Now Streaming: The Best Video Game Movies

Mortal Kombat Best Video Game Movies

Video games may be one of the dominant art forms on the planet now, but for whatever reason that level of popularity has never quite translated to film. The sad, and almost universally shared belief is that most – if not all – video game movies suck. One need only look at the films often considered to be “the best video game movies ever made” to realize we have a problem: if merely decent genre flicks like Silent Hill and Mortal Kombat are among the best of the genre, we have a long way to go.

It’s a problem that seems unlikely to be fixed by Pixels, the new comedy starring Adam Sandler as a former gamer going to battle against alien first-generation video game sprites, which opens this weekend. Pixels isn’t even a proper “video game movie,” since it doesn’t adapt a video game so much as take inspiration from them.

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But if that counts – and for the sake of conversation, we’re saying it does – then that at least opens the door for this week’s Now Streaming, which highlights the best video game movies currently available at the click of a button, and which would have been a pretty lean list if we didn’t let ourselves include documentaries and features that use video games as a plot point, but aren’t based on a single, specific game. If you lament the repeated failures to turn video games into movies, and are patiently awaiting the genre’s The Dark Knight to arrive and legitimize the genre, here are five decent, sometimes great films to tide you over.

Indie Game: The Movie (Netflix)

Indie Game The Movie

Video games are a big business, and like most big businesses they tend to be dominated by giant corporations. Fortunately, video games are also an art form that offers big rewards and massive audiences for hard-working, inspired designers working in the independent marketplace. Indie Game: The Movie, directed by James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, takes you behind the scenes of the smaller side of the industry, focusing on Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow, who were responsible for the breakout games Super Meat BoyFez and Braid, respectively.

Behind the scenes backstabbing, rivalries, jealousies and make-it-or-break-it gambles abound in Indie Game: The Movie, which is in many ways a conventional documentary, humanizing the individuals who composed all the 1’s and 0’s that made up some of the best independent video games of the last decade. The film is particularly effective at illuminating the industry for folks who know next to nothing about it, but if you have ever played any of these games (and if not, we highly recommend that you do) you may come away with a newfound respect for the hard work and personal turmoils that brought them into existence.

Mortal Kombat (Netflix)

Mortal Kombat 1995

The first halfway decent movie based on a specific video game has not aged well, sad to say. The hokey storyline, shoddy visual effects and lame dialogue couldn’t even be called “mediocre” by contemporary standards, and if Paul W.S. Anderson’s film had been released today it would be assumed that Mortal Kombat was made for very young children. But there is no denying that Mortal Kombat retains a matinee charm that wiles away a Saturday afternoon as well as any other dumb action movie currently available on instant streaming.

The story more-or-less faithfully adapts the video game’s simple concept: a legendary fighting tournament, with the fate of the world on the line, forces heroes and villains to duel to the death. Some fight scenes are spectacular (Johnny Cage vs. Scorpion), others are pretty embarrassing (Liu Kang vs. Sub-Zero, anticlimactic to an extreme), but overall there’s a Power Rangers charm to the whole film that panders – successfully – to the little kid in us all. 

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Hulu Plus)

The King of Kong Fistfull of Quarters

Video games are fun and all, but deep down, many people still believe that they are a waste of time. These folks don’t understand the spirit of competition that emerges from true, hardcore gaming, or the culture that has arisen around the pastime. These folks need to watch King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Seth Gordon’s documentary tells the story of Steve Wiebe, who aims to reach the highest score in the history of Donkey Kong. It might not sound like a big deal, or even all that hard, but Gordon illustrates with suspenseful clarity just how monumental a task this will be. Pumping King of Kong full of drama is the ongoing competition between Wiebe and world record-holder Billy Mitchell, whose efforts to undermine Wiebe come across as extreme, hypocritical, even a little villainous.

King of Kong plays like a great sports movie, right down to the twists and turns and overwhelming accomplishments. It’s an unusually captivating look at an activity that doesn’t always seem dramatic in our daily lives, and proves just how important any little thing can be if the right person cares about it enough. 

eXistenZ (Netflix / Hulu Plus)

Existenz

As video games get more realistic, as open world environments allow for greater freedom of choice and exploration, and as virtual reality attempts to finally leap into our homes, we may find ourselves increasingly in a world like eXistenZ. David Cronenberg’s sci-fi thriller stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as a game designer whose latest creation is a fully realized world with rules not unlike real video games, but consequences that are horrifying. Video games are no so dominant in the social consciousness that ports are surgically implanted into your spine, and radical terrorist groups have formed to take back reality from overzealous programmers.

It sounds like an action movie (actually, it sounds quite a bit like Gamer), but Cronenberg is too thoughtful a filmmaker to turn eXistenZ into fluff. His film is a grotesque head trip that forces the characters and the audience to question their reality, and wonder if everything they see is just a computer program, and whether they or anyone they know has any free will beyond what’s already in their programming. Creepy, smart and shocking, eXistenZ is one of the best video game movies. It’s just based on the philosophical ideas behind video games, rather than the games themselves.

WarGames (Netflix / Hulu Plus)

WarGames Matthew Broderick

The suspense classic WarGames is a video game movie, a hacker movie, a Cold War thriller and a suspenseful coming of age tale all in one. John Badham’s film stars Matthew Broderick as a wunderkind computer expert who breaks into the computer system of what he thinks is a high-tech video game company, and plays a program called “Global Thermonuclear War.” What he doesn’t realize – until it’s too late – is that he’s actually hacked into the government, and that his little game is going to destroy the entire human race in a horrifying wave of radioactive fire, and unsurvivable fallout.

WarGames works just great as a thriller, but its ideas remain as pertinent today. Badham’s film deftly tackles the uncomfortable relationship between hypothetical violence and real-life destruction, the consequences that emerge from detachment, and the folly of the Cold War itself. The film’s climax is an incredibly suspenseful video game competition on which the fate of the whole world rests, but it’s nowhere near as silly as that sounds. There’s a genuine purpose to games, and it’s not just to have fun. Games, and not just video games, have real-life applications that prove invaluable in our daily lives, and on a global scale. WarGames teaches these valuable lessons and provides a taut piece of entertainment at the same time. It’s a classic.

Not Streaming: Joysticks

The video game movie genre is so new that practically every film within it is currently, readily available on instant streaming, if not right away then at least for a small rental fee. But although you can shell out a little cash and still watch the Resident Evil movies or The Last Starfighter anytime you want, there is one cult classic from the 1980s that can’t be found anywhere: Joysticks, a naughty sex comedy that’s even out of print on DVD.

We’d love to tell you that Joysticks is an unsung classic, or at least good for a chuckle, we haven’t been able to see it. It’s pretty danged unavailable unless you’re to shell out the cash for a hard copy. But everyone can at least see the above, dorky, sexy, dumb little trailer for what appears to be a prototypical 1980s comedy, complete with completely unnecessary nudity and a climactic competition to save the local teen hangout from an evil, EVIL Joe Don Baker, who can’t believe his own daughter plays those nasty video games he hates SO MUCH. It looks great to us, but your mileage might vary.

 


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.