Forget Pixels, Here Are Some Good Films About Games

Innocently browsing the internet yesterday, I was hit with an aggressive reminder that there is a new Hitman movie coming to cinemas this year. During the tiny teaser trailer, a helicopter crashed into an explosion. It’s not the Hitman film I’d want to see but I’m not convinced there’s any Hitman adaptation I’d want to see. Something along the lines of Le Samouraï Chauve maybe. I sure as heck don’t want to watch an actor crouch-walking through corridors and stealing peoples’ clothes. Hitman’s world may look fairly convincing but its rules are abstract. Act them out and you’d be exposing just how abstract they actually are.

Here are some films that actually understand games.

Hitman isn’t the only game that wouldn’t necessarily suit a new cinematic life. I’d like to see some game worlds reinterpreted as cinema but I reckon a short would do for most of them – enough to give a sense of the recreated spaces and not much more. There’s no need to pretend people care about watching plots and character interactions that they enjoyed in the game. JC Denton, as already written, shouldn’t be carrying a film. It’s good to be Denton but watching him would be like watching a thousand other sci-fi action protagonists. The characters and plot usually aren’t essential to whatever is cinematic in any given game – John Wick is the best Max Payne movie and it isn’t trying to be a Max Payne movie. It’s also fair to say that the most cinematic parts of a game, those parts that would translate well into film, were probably borrowed from film in the first place. Regurgitation rather than reinterpretation.

There are decent films about games though. I’m not talking about documentaries that show the struggles and anguish of being an artiste/entrepeneur, I’m talking about films that explore the idea of interactive virtual environments, and the rules that govern them. And, no, I don’t mean The Matrix. I absolutely do not mean Gamer (Gerard Butler’s worst game-related role, even though he was in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life).

Here are three films, plucked from the obscure corners of my memory, that tackles games in an interesting way.

1) Level Five (1997; dir. Chris Marker)

If you know the late French multimedia artist Chris Marker it’s probably because of La Jetee. And if you know La Jetee it might well be because of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. La Jetee inspired Gilliam’s time travel thriller but they have little in common. Where Twelve Monkeys is star-studded and slick, by Gilliam’s grimy standards, La Jetee is a defiant oddity. Almost entirely constructed using still images, it’s a short, sharp shock, contemplative and quietly devastating.

Level Five, made 35 years later, is Marker’s memorial to virtual realities, history and the internet. Except, released in 1997, it’s a memorial for a future that Marker predicts with uncanny clarity. The technical details of the game within the film aren’t important – it’s the context and the conversations around it that matter. A designer is asked to make a piece of interactive entertainment based on the Battle of Okinawa, in which at least a 100,000 combatants were killed, and tens of thousands of civilians died as a result of the assault. Others committed suicide, fearing the brutality that they were told would follow American occupation.

Marker finds the horror at the heart of the concept but it isn’t a sensational horror, and his film is interested in the disintegration of meaning rather than the marketing of sale of violence as entertainment. It’s a difficult film, wearily and sadly confrontational, and it’s also superb.

2) The Nines (2007; dir. John August)

It has a shitty poster and I haven’t seen it since 2008 so can’t say whether it holds up or not, but The Nines is interesting at the very least. It’s best not to know much before watching but the plot is concerned with the rules of games and the design of games. The ending is silly and possibly unearned, the sci-fi concepts take over from the early surrealism, but there are enough clever ideas to make the (short) trip worthwhile. Also contains what I reckon is still Melissa McCarthy’s best role – effortlessly moving from comedy to something else entirely.

3) eXistenZ (1999; dir. David Cronenberg)

Cronenberg does games is as weird and rewarding as you might hope the combination would be. I know a lot of people who hate eXistenZ and not just because of the capitalisation in the title. That capitalisation is part of the fiction – it’s the title of a virtual reality game undergoing prototyping – which makes it absolutely fine. It’s parody.

The film isn’t though. It’s a pitch-black comedy/horror hybrid that understands the mechanical abstractions of game worlds and NPCs better than any film released before or since. Blending Cronenberg’s patented body-horror with late-nineties console designs, eXistenZ takes place in a world where rival gaming corporations have begun to use biologically invasive devices to improve immersion. Everything goes wrong, of course, and Jude Law makes a gun out of teeth and bones.

It’s the way that people interact that sticks in my mind though. Characters get stuck in loops, waiting for the dialogue that unlocks their next line of dialogue, and people are compelled to do the strangest thing because of their scripting. The beauty of this extremely horrible film is in how it shows the similarities between games and certain kinds of dream.

Use the comments to share other films that have informed your view of games. Or just tell me that The Nines actually was rubbish and that I should never rewatch it.


  1. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    I think Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is so far the only well-known film to really get video games. It’s not about video games, and doesn’t contain any cutting insight on what makes them tick; but it uses the visual language of video games in a way that no other fictional film has even tried to do.

    The Sky Crawlers’ treatment of war-as-game is food for thought, though it’s certainly a stretch to call it a “game movie,” though it does focus on a central mechanic/conceit common in multiplayer video games (being vague to avoid spoilers here).

  2. Andy_Panthro says:

    I saw John Wick the other day and wasn’t impressed. Not entirely sure why it’s got so much praise, although it perhaps is the best of the recent set of Taken-like action films.

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      phuzz says:

      I sat down to watch it, expecting something on the level of Constantine, so I was pleasantly surprised.
      It’s interesting how much one’s expectations colour one’s experiences isn’t it?

      • Andy_Panthro says:

        Oddly enough I enjoyed Constantine. I had no knowledge of the comic at the time (still don’t know much), and I can only assume the dislike for it is due to it being so unlike the comic?

  3. melnificent says:

    I enjoyed the more absurd elements of eXistenZ such as shouting “eXistenZ is paused” and collapsing on the table while the game world continues around them.
    Which is how I imagine people that go AFK in a multiplayer game hoping that everyone will stop, even though they never do.

    Star Trek:TNG episode The Game is something that shows the, at the time, future of addictive “almost” games (hello Adventure capitalist). In fact the game itself is so barebones to us as outside observers that it also hooks in to the whole “why are you playing THAT?” that accompanies certain games.

  4. Dorga says:

    There was this argentinian movie about an agoraphobic gamer which seemed interesting but I don’t remember the name.

  5. Chaz says:

    eXistenZ is the only film in my collection that is I suppose properly about video games, despite me having been into them since the age of 7. Most of them that have tried to tackle the subject or films of the game, have pretty much always fallen far short of properly understanding on their subject matter.

    For me films that resonate more with video games are films like Battle Royal. The Battle Royal game itself in the film being very conceptually similar to a video game. It’s pretty much how you would imagine a video game made flesh.

    Another film of course is The Matrix, with the idea that without knowing it we are all living inside of a make believe digital video game like world. A world where hackers can essentially stack the odds in their favour and cheat the system by giving themselves all the guns and skills they need at the press of a button.

  6. melnificent says:

    I did go through a phase of watching even vaguely gaming related movies. The Thirteenth Floor, Doom, Gamer, etc, but one that always stuck in my mind was the truly terrible Gamebox 1.0. The plot is terrible, as is the CGI. It seems to be in that strange so bad it’s funny sort of area which the sci-fi channel seems to love making and airing to fill a few hours.

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    particlese says:

    On the serious side, I would say that “Edge of Tomorrow” (or whatever the heck it’s supposed to be called) is the best gamey movie I’ve seen, probably in part because it wasn’t trying to ape games or go for that specific audience (as far as I know); it just kind of found itself there. If I had to assign a game to it, though, I’d go with “Save the Date”.

    On the “whaa?” side, I’d go with Super Mario Bros. It has nothing to do with its associated game (which is often bafflingly referred to as a flaw), the effects are generally practical and pretty sweet for their time at times, and it’s so bad that it orbits around “so bad it’s good” and “just bad” a couple times before landing in the former territory (in my book).

    • Sin Vega says:

      Agreed, Edge of Tomorrow was a pleasant surprise, and I find Tom Cruise unwatchably annoying more often than not. Definitely worth watching, it’s not perfect by any means but it’s original, clever, and funny, and the pacing’s just right. It treats the viewer with a fair amount of respect, too, which is distressingly rare in modern cinema.

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        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        Tom Cruise is great as long as he is playing a schmuck.

        See also: a)Colour of Money b)Magnolia

  8. BongsworthIII says:

    I always felt Tom Yum Goong (aka Warrior King aka The Protector) was basically the Tekken with a bit of side scroller beat em up thrown in for good measure.

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    There’s also like one shot in Oldboy that is like a beat-em up.

    In fact most action/adventure movies these days just feel like you’re watching somebody else playing a game.