Lights, camera, game on : the rise of gaming on the silver screen
I love going to the movies, and I love watching movies based on video games. Even the video game movies that critics and most viewers call out to be pretty awful. The reason is that if they turn out to be great, you can enjoy dissecting them scene by scene and looking for Easter eggs and references from their source material. If they turn out to be terrible adaptations, you can still have fun analyzing where they tried and failed to bring the enjoyment of the game from a smaller screen to a bigger one. Although, it’s worth noting that these days, small screens are pretty big, and most people probably watch said video game movie on the same screen they play the gaming title on.
I love defending (most) of those gaming movies that get beat up by likes of platforms like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s take the Super Mario Bros movie, for example. No, not the recent record-breaking blockbuster animated hit, which I highly recommend watching if it’s still playing at your local cinema. I’m referring to the first adaptation back in ’93. It starred the late, great Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi. Now, I’m not about to defend the movie as some sort of masterpiece. I’m not blind to the fact that it has plot holes bigger than your average warp pipe, and behind the scenes, things were an absolute mess. The story goes production went way over schedule and budget, those involved in filming were constantly at odds with each other, and apparently, it had nine different writers before shooting even began. But despite all that, it has gained a cult following among gamers and non-gamers alike. Why?
Well, I’d say the nostalgic factor plays a massive part in it. The movie came out during a time when video game-based movies were relatively new. It resonated with a lot of kids and adults who were fans of the game. Even though it was not a faithful adaptation, it still holds a nostalgic place in their hearts. It was pretty much the first time video game characters had been seen on the big screen! The movie took a daring and creative departure from the source material. It transformed a simplistic 2D video game world into a dystopian, cyberpunk environment filled with oddball characters and imaginative settings. It was filled with cheesy jokes, puns, and slapstick humor, sometimes drawing inspiration from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It was a fun, albeit strange, experience. Anyone who has seen it cannot deny that Hoskins and Leguizamo put their hearts and souls into the characters, who at the time had never been given a voice or gone beyond 2D! Their charisma and comedic timing helped kids young and old fall in love with the film, whether they watched it when it originally came out or viewed it later through nostalgic eyes.
Sure, the plot may be confusing, but it deserves some credit for attempting to create a complex story from a video game about two plumbers rescuing a princess from a dinosaur. However, one of the biggest draws for me both then and now, is its distinct and imaginative visual style. The costume designs, props, and set designs depart from the colourful world of the game (which was captured amazingly well in the 2023 version) and instead replaced with sort of a cyberpunk industrial world, complete with Nintendo items such as the short-lived Superscope.
Lastly, I have to mention the soundtrack. I probably didn’t fully appreciate it when I first watched the movie at 12 years old, but later, when I had it on VHS and was a bit older, I appreciated the soundtrack for what it was. It’s a collection of various genres, memorable tracks, and some absolute bangers! The movie features songs by Megadeth and Queen, and yes, even Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch! If you could get your hands on it, there was also the OST by the legend Alan Silvestri. Yes, the musical maestro who composed the soundtracks for Back to the Future, Predator, Avengers, and all sorts of epic movies that are most likely on your favourite list.
But what about the competitive side of gaming and movies? What about the esports side of things?
Well, this is where it gets interesting, both back in the day, recent times, and what’s coming up on the big screen near you.
I’ve been involved in competitive video gaming for a very long time, even before it was called esports. Playing video games competitively has been around longer than I have. So it’s no surprise that there are a few movies in the archives that showcase the highs, lows, and excitement of the gaming arena. One movie that I’m particularly fond of is “The Wizard.”
This gem from 1989 provides another opportunity to see the big N on the big screen. “The Wizard” is a family adventure film centered around three children: Jimmy Woods, Corey (his supportive older brother), and Haley (a savvy runaway they meet on the road). The trio embarks on a cross-country journey to California, and along the way, they discover Jimmy’s prodigious talent for playing video games. Determined to prove Jimmy’s exceptional skill, they have decided to enter him in a video game championship held at Universal Studios Hollywood called ‘Video Armageddon.’ I know, I know, but the film actually serves as a touching exploration of grief and family bonds. Jimmy’s obsession with California and his silent demeanor stems from a deep-seated trauma related to the loss of his twin sister. It’s pretty heavy in parts for a kids’ film, despite basically being one feature-length advertisement for Super Mario Bros. 3 and the “Power Glove.” Look up that unique peripheral from Nintendo, it’s just too bad.
“The Wizard” was indeed a film ahead of its time, as it provides an early example of what we now enjoy as esports. Before competitive gaming was widely recognized and organized, the movie depicted the concept of a nationwide video game competition, something that would not become mainstream until decades later. “Video Armageddon,” with its massive arena, passionate crowd, intense competition, and the grand prize, mirrors our contemporary esports tournaments. Not only did “The Wizard” accurately predict the rise of professional gaming, but it also reflected the growing significance of video game culture in society. It emphasized the skill and dedication required to excel in video games, portraying them not just as mere hobbies but as serious competitions that can bring people together. Minus the Power Glove.
I’m open to being called out on this, but I struggle to name a modern film that has playing video games competitively as its main plot point. However, there have been some great examples of modern movies capturing the passion and excitement of esports on the silver screen. Let me give some honorable mentions!
First, we have “Wreck-It Ralph” and its sequel, “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Although not focused on competitive gaming, these films take place within the universe of video games, showcasing characters competing and exploring the implications of their in-game actions. Then there’s “Ready Player One,” the Spielberg great based on the even greater novel of the same name. Set in a dystopian future, the characters compete in a virtual reality world called the OASIS, where they must solve clues and complete tasks to inherit the game creator’s fortune. In “Pixels,” the 2015 Adam Sandler comedy, the main characters, who were video game champions in their youth, are recruited by the government to defeat alien invaders who have interpreted classic arcade games as a declaration of war. The protagonists must use their gaming skills in real-world scenarios. Last but not least on my little list is “Free Guy.” In this film, an NPC (non-player character) becomes aware of his existence inside a video game. While the film isn’t explicitly about esports, it does feature scenes of characters playing the game competitively.
So where is this generation’s esports movie? While not on the big screen, there have been some amazing documentaries made by the likes of Red Bull, ESL, and BLAST. There have also been some shows, including the excellent mockumentary “Players.” Sadly, this has been canceled after one season but is still well worth a watch.
I can’t help but feel that we are due for an epic esports movie on the big screen, perhaps an underdog tale of a down-on-his-luck coach or former org owner being approached by some rookie players trying to prove themselves in an epic tournament. Maybe there’s a tale to tell of some female gamers looking for a shot they deserve, proving skeptics and doubters wrong.
However, there is some hope on the horizon, or should I say the racetrack?
“Gran Turismo” is an upcoming coming-of-age sports drama film directed by Neill Blomkamp. The film is based on the racing sim and is inspired by the true story of Jann Mardenborough, a teenage Gran Turismo player aspiring to be a race car driver. The film’s premise revolves around Jann, a player whose gaming skills won a series of Nissan-sponsored video game competitions, leading him to become a pro race car driver. The trailer looks sick, and I’m not even a big sim fan. The film features an impressive cast, with David Harbour playing the role of Jack Salter, Jann’s trainer, Orlando Bloom as Danny Moore, a motorsport marketing executive, and Darren Barnet as Matty Davis, a top GT Academy driver who feels threatened by Jann’s success. Set to release in a few months, given PlayStation’s recent successful game-to-screen adaptations and the talented filmmaker Blomkamp in the director’s chair, I have high hopes for this one.
Just don’t look to me for spotting any of the Easter eggs or references!