Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph opens in theaters today. It’s a movie about video games, in just about every way possible.
The film’s protagonist, Ralph, is actually the antagonist of a classic arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., and as the movie opens, he’s in a pretty serious funk. For 30 years, he has terrorized the tenants of a virtual apartment building only to have the perennially perky Felix undo his efforts and exile him to the junkyard each and every night. Unappreciated and alone, Ralph spends his nights on the pile of discarded bricks he calls home, jealously looking upon the adoration Felix receives as the people’s savior. Fed up with his lot in life, Ralph sets out to prove he can rise above his role as the villain, jumping out of Fix-It Felix Jr. and into the arcade’s other games in search of a hero’s medal.
The movie itself is fun, with well realized characters, perfect casting, and enough gaming cameos and references to establish that the filmmakers indeed “get it,” but not so many as to get in the way of the actual story they’re trying to tell. A handful of the gags even have some insight to offer on gaming, but perhaps not as much insight as the film’s plot.
Much like gaming itself, Ralph’s primary action is destruction because it’s what comes naturally to him. He is a mammoth man with medicine ball hands, a hulking oaf incapable of handling things delicately. Violence is his vocabularly. For 30 years, it has been how he’s expressed himself. Whether Ralph is wrecking things in joy, sorrow, frustration, or anger, the point is he’s always wrecking things. The movie then, becomes about the medium’s aspiration to do something more than wrecking. And just as happens so often in gaming (like, for instance, with Heavy Rain), Ralph’s attempt to be something more, to be something else, fall comically short of their intended target.
But the attempt is still important, still meaningful. And eventually, Ralph perseveres. He realizes his strengths, and he takes that thing he does well—violence—and puts it to good use in the proper situations. Ralph achieves his original goal (in a form), but only after he stops pursuing it as an end in and of itself. The game industry could probably learn a thing or two from Ralph.
So Wreck-It Ralph is about games, but not actually based on one. On the other hand, there are a pair of other new films based entirely on games, but not actually about them at all. Silent Hill: Revelation 3D opened last week, and the Phoenix Wright-based Ace Attorney is slowly making its rounds on the festival circuit (The film will screen this Sunday in association with the Gamercamp festival in Toronto. Get tickets here!) Perhaps showing how far gaming has come in the culture at large, neither film is an embarrassment to the industry.
As one might expect, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D is a horror film released to capitalize on the annual Halloween demand for violence and gore just before the seasonal bombardment of lip service to peace on Earth and good will toward men. And the nicest thing you could say about it is that it does very little to stand out among its scary movie peers. The Silent Hill sequel runs down a checklist of genre staples: creepy kids with demonic powers, pointy things poking directly at the audience in 3D, an idyllic small town fallen into sinister disrepair, religious zealots perpetrating the most heinous of evils in God’s name, and a female protagonist who screams a lot and whose likelihood of dropping any given item increases proportionate to its usefulness in the given situation. (Honestly, who can be bothered to keep a tight grip on a flashlight in a super-spooky hellscape where the lights habitually flicker and die right behind anyone racing down a hallway?)
Silent Hill: Revelation 3D takes those clichés and spices them up with elements distinctive to the Silent Hill gaming franchise. The town is draped in a constant rain of 3D ashes, making for plenty of spooky visuals and the constant possibility that something horrible lurks just beyond the town’s draw distance. Perennially moaning, herky jerky stitch-faced stabby things are plentiful, so much so that they probably have their own ethnicity checkbox on the town’s census form. And of course, Pyramid Head.
Ace Attorney likewise brings its source material’s distinctive elements to the big screen. But in a truly novel twist, it leaves the genre staples by the wayside. Directed by auteur Takashi Miike (who is equal parts prodigious, versatile, and deranged), the Phoenix Wright movie is hands down the most literal game-to-movie adaptation yet. If you’ve played through the original DS game, you pretty much know the script already. You know the court case twists and turns, the revelations and the order in which they will come. Miike has taken the insane leap of faith in assuming that the story told as it was in the game can stand on its own in a cinematic setting. And damn it, he was right. Ace Attorney dutifully does its best to follow the look and style of the game, from exaggerated manga haircuts to near constant posing. It is arguably the best game-to-film adaptation yet, and certainly boasts the most heart-wrenchingly poignant cross-examination of a parrot ever committed to film.
What Silent Hill: Revelation 3D and Ace Attorney have in common is that they reference their source material, but not its medium. They are not about video games; they are about Silent Hill and Phoenix Wright. There are no cartoonish villains cackling “Game over!”, in the same way that movies based on books don’t start with the title card “Chapter One” or make jokes about dogears and papercuts. If the viewer doesn’t happen to know the source material, these are films that could have been adapted from comics, or books, or board games. There is no sequence filmed to look like a first-person shooter, no M. Bison waggling on an arcade joystick. They are telling stories without feeling the need to apologize for their inspirations, or point out the novelty of trying to tell a story that came from a video game. They are what they are, good or bad, and make no apologies for their origins.
There is a scene in Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (and yes, I hate that “3D” is part of the film’s actual title and apologize for inflicting it upon you repeatedly) where Sean Bean tells his teenage daughter Heather, “Your roots are showing.” He is overtly talking about her hair, and referencing her demon-spawned origins on the sly. But the triumph of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D and Ace Attorney, admittedly mild though it may be, is that their roots aren’t showing, because their roots aren’t relevant.