“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” This quote, which I mercilessly stole from Picasso, is a mantra for creative folks who gather influences from all kinds of sources. Many filmmakers have borrowed from the more established touchstones of culture, but I’m interested in examining the movies that are influenced by an ever-growing medium: video games. Note: This list purposely avoids movies that are direct adaptations of video games, focusing instead on movies that borrow the structure and foundational elements of video games. Ready? Begin!
The Crank Series
Folks have compared the Jason Statham-starring actioners to Grand Theft Auto; I’d say, with their over-the-top, fourth-wall-breaking, adrenaline-fueled insanity, they’re more like Saint’s Row. It’s clear that directors Neveldine/Taylor adore the structure, imagery, and tropes of video games, to the point where the first film ends with a 16-bit side-scrolling recap of the film itself. Protagonist Chev Chelios is given a simple objective in each film — keep your heart rate up! Keep jolting yourself with electricity! — which he does in increasingly heightened, video game mission-esque ways. In one of the opening action sequences of Crank 2: High Voltage, Chev shoots a bunch of bad guys one at a time, then grabs their guns to upgrade his weaponry like he was in a dang FPS.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
The genius of Scott Pilgrim lies in the fact that it has its video game culture cake and eats it, too. When watching, you get lots of sheer visceral pleasures from the rambunctious speed and amount of video game references (The Zelda fairy theme! Evil exes turning into coins! Gideon literally glitching!) but also a sneaky and important satirization of what happens when you take the video game POV and apply it to real life. Scott’s seemingly simple quest of “fight the exes, get the girl” is constantly challenged and complicated, proving that human relationships are more complicated than folks who are raised on the simple “do x, get y” mechanics of video games may wish. And that’s worth earning the power of self-respect.
The Raid Series
When you go see a martial arts movie, just like when you play an action video game, you don’t necessarily want an over-complicated plot. You want the simplest, clearest establishment of stakes and spatial awareness up top so you can spend the rest of the experience watching (or playing as) folks who beat each other up in increasingly spectacular ways. The Raid series understands this and borrows a plot structure used in many beat-em-up video games to get there. Our hero is at the bottom of a building, the boss is at the top. To get there, he must fight his way through nameless grunts and mini-bosses until the final showdown. Its spare, primal, elemental, and allows us to get to the action goods quickly — and we have video game culture to thank for it.
The Matrix Series
“Guns. Lots of guns.” On Neo’s command, the white void he’s standing in is suddenly full of artillery to choose from. If this sequence doesn’t remind you of the opening setup of any multiplayer shooter, I’ll eat my hat. Furthermore, Neo actually goes through several “tutorial levels” with Morpheus to learn how to be a Kung Fu-fighting action hero. Plus, the Matrix itself could be viewed as a metaphorical video game that the folks who live in the real world of Zion get to play and eventually jam cheat codes into (granted, there’s no real-world risk of dying from playing a video game, but you get my point). The Matrix films borrow a lot from high and low culture alike, but video games may be the most sneakily important of all the Wachowskis’ influences.
Edge Of Tomorrow
A hero engages in a conflict he must solve. The conflict proves to be too much for the hero, who dies. The hero then respawns, learns from their mistake, and uses that knowledge to get past that point. The hero then dies again at a later point, learns from that mistake, respawns, and keeps going. And so on, and so on, until the conflict is complete. Live, die, repeat. Sound familiar? This is both the structural building block of video games and the darkly funny sci-fi blockbuster Edge Of Tomorrow, which instills pangs of painful familiarity to anyone who’s spent hours in a game trying to avoid dying at one moment, only to get killed three seconds later. The relationship between Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt even reminds me of the relationship between a newbie and a master gamer who have to work together on the same Counter-Strike team.
While it’s temptingly easy to get bogged down in the, uh, “quality” of this movie, I will instead focus solely on the video-game influenced episodic structure. Every vignette (that is to say, level) takes place in the main character’s mind, with a new mission and objective for each one. These flights of action-packed fantasy are all for the video-game-influenced purpose of collecting various items, and our main characters have an imaginary arsenal at their disposal to fight their fanciful villains and aggressors. The movie comes this close to making some kind of comment on how video games can help real-life folks escape pains and traumas, but instead devolves into a horrible garbage pile of a dumb mess. Oops, I said I wouldn’t talk about the quality.
If The Raid is Streets Of Rage, then Snowpiercer is Hotline Miami. Both properties are essentially structured the same — there’s a big boss at the end of the train, which our heroes must fight through various henchman and mini-bosses to get to — yet the second one seems to have moral complexities and ambiguities on its mind. Snowpiercer then belongs to the growing tradition of complicated indie video games, taking the structure from games of the past as a foundation from which to pose tricky questions about the future.
This film is literally a first-person video game as a movie. Everything is from “your” perspective, making it seem as though “you’re” the person in charge of all the inventive mayhem. Yet, just like many first-person video games with a silent, faceless protagonist, this device makes it hard for an audience to care about “you”, as “you” don’t seem to react or even feel anything. Perhaps Hardcore Henry proves that the best way to make a video-game influenced movie is to mix the best elements of the two, rather than simply copy-and-paste.
Which video-game-inspired movie is your favorite? Which ones did we miss? Do you actually like Sucker Punch? Feel free to give me a follow on Twitter, but you have to follow lots of smaller Twitters to get to me. Just a warning.