David S Goyer has had an interesting career. Now, he’s Hollywood’s go-to script guy for intelligent genre and superhero stuff – from the amazing “Dark City” to “Blade” to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy to “Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice”; but he got his start writing Jean Claude Van Damme movies, as well as working for our old friends at Full Moon! “Demonic Toys” is one of his, and this is the other. I think he deserves every success, as he’s a guy who worked for Albert Pyun – yes, dear reader, after promising to stop watching his dreadful nonsense, here we are again. Can one of genre cinema’s finest writers defeat one of its worst directors?
This is a fine addition to the genre of killer computer movies, along with stuff like “Demon Seed”, “Johnny Mnemonic”, “Lawnmower Man”, and, I suppose, “2001” and “Terminator” (although I feel dirty even mentioning those last two in the same breath as “Arcade”). Alex is a suburban teen who wakes up every morning with the memory of her mother’s suicide fresh in her mind; her father is a wreck and she’s barely holding it together. She’s got a boyfriend, Greg, and a group of friends – Nick, Stilts and Laurie – and one day they decide to go and visit Dante’s Inferno, the local video arcade, to preview the new game “Arcade” (poor name, I reckon). It’s all about virtual reality, but it’s super-evil and while everyone’s backs are turned, beams Greg into itself; the rep from Vertigo/Tronics hands out home virtual reality machines and you know there’s going to be some problems.
Almost immediately, the only people left from the arcade are Laurie and Nick, and they’ve got to figure out what’s going on and, obviously, go back into the game, which is now taunting them with their trapped friends. They’ll need help from the programmer and to find out the game’s secret, which goes back to its initial creation. And you know there’s going to be some sweet early 90s CGI!
Not only is there a big name as writer, there are some fairly big names (in terms of the ISCFC) in the cast too. Leaving aside the star for the moment, Stilts is Seth Green, almost unrecognisable with a nose which must have had some surgery done to it before his first appearance on “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” a couple of years later; Nick is Peter Billingsley, known to a generation as the kid from “A Christmas Story”; and Laurie is AJ Langer, also in “My So-Called Life” and now a member of the British aristocracy, being married to a Duke or Earl or some such nonsense. Representing the game manufacturers are John de Lancie (aka Q from “Star Trek”) and Norbert Weisser, one of those fine “that guy” actors. But our star is a Full Moon regular who’d go on to bigger things, Megan Ward. Her first role was in “Crash and Burn”, but she also appeared in “Trancers” 2 and 3 before a long career in TV and the movies (including “Dark Skies”, “Politically Correct Party Animals” and several years on “General Hospital”). She didn’t make it as far as Goyer did from these humble beginnings, but it’s always nice to see a success story.
One film I didn’t mention in the comparisons was “Pulse”, the Japanese modern horror classic that inspired a decent US remake. That was about the way technology is taking over our lives and the way we communicate – represented by people literally disappearing after viewing a certain website. How that movie succeeded was by showing you the wider world, but only at the corner of the frame – so the main couple would be driving along, and you’d notice there was no-one else on the road. Chilling and brilliant. Now, “Arcade” could’ve been, with a tweak or two, on that level, but it thinks too small, with the only people who disappear the handful of kids present in the arcade that night. It’s still a pretty cool idea for a movie, though. I did like the slasher film structure to it all, though, and thinking about it, it bears more than a passing resemblance to “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (apart from the gore and all that).
It’s definitely not without its problems, though. Firstly, why does a virtual reality machine need plugging into a TV? It’s all in the headset, right? Well, it’s so characters can take off the headset yet the evil VR can still taunt them, but it’s kind of an odd choice. And then there’s the motivation of the VR itself…when you learn just what they used to build it, you’ll groan, partly because it’s ludicrous, but mostly because it makes no sense. The programmer is entirely oblivious to the fact his new game is actually abducting people from reality – seems a weird functionality to build into an arcade machine, but whatever – and the corporation itself is more incompetent than evil, leaving you with no-one to root against. I’m not sure how much to blame Albert Pyun, because this movie features actual establishing shots and other things he’s normally dead set against – this doesn’t feel like one of his, which is a substantial compliment.
And the game itself! We barely see any of it for the first hour, a sensible choice, and then the entirety of the last act is set inside the game, with its mix of real locations and awfully cheesy CGI. I guess the curse of films about computer games is games age really really quickly, so they end up looking stupid, often by the time they’re released. This one had such awful special effects that they pulled it from release to re-do them, and it’s not like the re-done versions are much good either, so I’m sort of fascinated how bad they could have been.
Factor in an extremely heavy-handed message (“glued to the tube” is used to describe modern society), and the way the game mirrors the name of the arcade for absolutely no reason whatsoever, and you’ve got a film that’s…well, it’s not great, that’s for certain, but there’s a darkness to certain sections of it that hints at the potential for a much more interesting story, and that means you can’t completely dismiss it. Goyer apparently wrote a sequel that never got made, a fact I’m surprised Charles Band (Full Moon head honcho) didn’t rectify when he realised he had a script from an A-lister on his desk that he could use for free.
Rating: thumbs in the middle