First off, let me state: I’m not including films that are based on video games (IE: Super Mario Bros or Prince of Persia), this is a list of movies about video games. It’s a list about gamers in movies or movies where video games play a crucial role to the storyline. So put down your controller, joystick, or powerglove and enjoy.
TRON (Steven Lisberger, 1982)
Synopsis: A computer hacker is abducted into the digital world and forced to participate in gladiatorial games where his only chance of escape is with the help of a heroic security program.
Tron is a film I remember watching as a little kid and being blown away. The graphics and action were unforgettable, watching it as an adult, it actually still holds up nicely. I mean, it’s dated, but still has a certain charm that’s unquestionably characteristic of the time. Besides, you could try and modernize this film and polish up the CG (like they did with Tron: Uprising) and it wouldn’t necessarily make it a better film.
JOYSTICKS (Greydon Clark, 1983)
Synopsis: When a top local businessman and his two bumbling nephews try to shut down the town’s only video arcade, arcade employees and patrons fight back.
Joysticks is really stupid, but it’s also a lot of fun. By no means is it a great movie, but it has some decent laughs and is a silly look at how Hollywood tried to capitalize off the popularity of video games at the time. It’s basically Screw Balls or Porky’s, except at an arcade (for you younger gamers, arcades used to be where people played video games… yes, you had to go somewhere to do that… yes, it sounds as bad as you think it does).
WARGAMES (John Badham, 1983)
Synopsis: A young man finds a back door into a military central computer in which reality is confused with game-playing, possibly starting World War III.
WarGames was an early adapter of the computer hacker subgenre, so early in fact, that it inspired congress to create the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984. This film is also interesting because it came at the height of the Cold War and the paranoia about nuclear weapons help shape its narrative. The film is still really solid, has a fantastic cast, and is definitely worth watching if you’re into thrillers.
CLOAK & DAGGER (Richard Franklin, 1984)
Synopsis: A young boy with a penchant for spy thrillers and video games, finds himself in the middle of real espionage when he’s relentlessly pursued by spies after he comes into possession of a video game cartridge containing top-secret government info.
Elliot from E.T.’s follow up film, Cloak & Dagger is a movie that fell off the radar for the most part. It’s not terrible, but a bit forgetful. It has the same thriller vibe that WarGames has, only a little more child friendly. Being a rather avid Atari fan, one can’t help but love the cartridges on display during the movie… nostalgia overload.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER (Nick Castle, 1984)
Synopsis: A discouraged video-gaming boy finds himself recruited as a gunner for an alien defense force.
This was one my favorite movies as a young lad, I remember being blown away by the special effects, which were ahead of their time… you’re welcome Avatar. Actually, this and Tron were some of the first movies to use CG. The effects aren’t great for today’s standards, especially some of the explosions. It has its fair share of cheese, but there’s some awesomeness in there as well. You’ll find a good deal of Spielbergian notes throughout, especially all the night scenes filmed in and around the trailer park and the score is very memorable.
THE DUNGEONMASTER (Charles Band, 1984)
Synopsis: A demonic wizard challenges a modern-day computer programmer to a battle of technology vs. sorcery, with the programmer’s girlfriend as the prize.
The Dungeonmaster is a true oddity. Tonely, it’s very strange and not all that cohesive, it might have to do with the fact that it was directed by 7 different people. Still, it’s jammed pack with over-the-top 80s radness and is a must see for gamers, especially Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft fans.
THE WIZARD (Todd Holland, 1989)
Synopsis: A boy and his brother run away from home and hitch cross country with the help of a girl they meet to compete in the ultimate video game championship.
Fred Savage from The Wonder Years and his kid brother set off across America to play Nintendo and rock a power glove. There’s a fun story here amidst all the marketing that slams you over the head. If you’re into retro games, this film should definitely be on your “must see” list.
BRAINSCAN (John Flynn, 1994)
Synopsis: A teenager is part of an interactive video game where he kills innocent victims. Later, the murders become real.
Brainscan stars the kid from Terminator II and one freaky ass looking dude that could easily front an amazing goth band. This film doesn’t overstay its welcome and nicely blends horror, comedy, and sci-fi in a satisfying way.
EXISTENZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
Synopsis: A game designer on the run from assassins must play her latest virtual reality creation with a marketing trainee to determine if the game has been damaged.
This film is fucked. Really fucked. So much so, that it made our “Most WTF Films Ever Made List“. This came out right around the same time The Matrix did, but eXistenZ takes the whole “alternate reality” angle and plays it as a game instead. It really works in a truly twisted way, just check out the game controller and you’ll understand.
AVALON (Mamoru Oshii, 2001)
Synopsis: In a future world, young people are increasingly becoming addicted to an illegal (and potentially deadly) battle simulation game called Avalon.
I stumbled across this film while preparing for this list and I’m glad I did. It’s a rarity that should get a little more attention. It’s directed by Mamoru Oshii, who is very well known in the Japanese animation world, and has a wonderful poetic aspect to it. Avalon might also get lumped into the whole Matrix clone category, but it easily stands on its own.
GRANDMA’S BOY (Nicholaus Goossen, 2006)
Synopsis: A 35 year old video game tester has to move in with his grandma and her two old lady roommates.
Grandma’s Boy is the Godfather of the stoner gamer subgenre… come to think of it, I think it’s the only stoner gamer movie that exists. It’s pretty ridiculous but still manages to generate some genuine laughs. It makes working as a video games tester seem even greater than you thought it’d be.
THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (Seth Gordon, 2007)
Synopsis: Die-hard gamers compete to break world records on classic arcade games.
There are tons of video game documentaries out there, I’m only gonna focus on two (the other coming shortly on this list). This doc primarily focuses on two gamers: one seems chill, the other seems like a real dick. It’s effective and keeps you invested in both characters, all while finishing up with a real nice climax.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD (Edgar Wright, 2010)
Synopsis: Scott Pilgrim must defeat his new girlfriend’s seven evil exes in order to win her heart.
So, technically SPVTW doesn’t involve playing video games, or gamers, but it is saturated with tons of video game references and that’s why it’s making the cut. This is probably my favorite film on the list and should be seen by anyone who considers themselves a gamer. The action, style, and performances all come together in a harmonious way that makes for an extremely entertaining movie.
INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE ( Lisanne Pajot, James Swirsky, 2012)
Synopsis: A documentary that follows the journeys of indie game developers as they create games and release those works, and themselves, to the world.
This is the other documentary I said I was including. Indie Game is a highly stylised doc with a great sense of character. Looking at the other side of gaming that doesn’t have the most glamourous perspective, you get a solid look into the hard work it takes to make a video game successful in today’s vast market.
WRECK-IT RALPH (Rich Moore, 2012)
Synopsis: A video game villain wants to be a hero and sets out to fulfill his dream, but his quest brings havoc to the whole arcade where he lives.
Wreck-it Ralph gets honors on the list with the fact that Street Fighter (my all-time favorite game) gets represented. Along with Chun Li, Zangief, and M. Bison, comes a whole host of other famous video game characters that all exist in arcade world that is brilliantly crafted by the fine folks at Disney.
(Synopsis Source: IMDB)