Videogames are at minimum a $6 billon business, rivaling in scope the entire film industry. Hollywood wants a taste. In the 1980s, the days of the arcade, sometimes Hollywood got it right; the films The Last Starfighter , Wargames , and especially Tron worked because games, at the time, were so graphically simple, the movies had space to elaborate.
But these days, instead of employing blocky graphics that can be created by a single programmer working out of his garage, games are incredibly visually complex. They cost an average of $20 million a piece, worked on for years by a staff of forty or more. They already look like movies; so a successful film will need to capture the elusive essence that gives games their appeal.
A new film, Gamebox 1.0 , comes close. The hero, Charlie (Nate Richert), is a videogame tester by day, and a games junkie at night. Like a great many things, videogames are healthy in moderation; but too much time in a virtual world weakens your grasp of reality. Charlie is counting on it. His girlfriend was murdered; now, the anesthetic quality of binge gaming is his refuge.
In a setup straight from an ’80s film, Charlie receives a mysterious videogame console in the mail. There is a main unit, and an apparatus a little like a silver bike helmet that goes over the head. Don’t laugh; a company called Emotiv Systems has developed something called Project Epoch, a gaming headset that looks eerily like the one in the film, debuted at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference. It actually reads electrical impulses from the brain – that is, thoughts — to control games. And it’s ready to go to market. Really.
Gamebox 1.0 transports Charlie to three virtual worlds, based on the popular games Resident Evil , Halo , and especially Grand Theft Auto , the lightning rod for criticism of the games industry. Charlie knows his way around gaming clichés such as floating heart icons, arrows that point to the next objective, and guns that materialize, as if by magic, in his hand. The catch is that if Charlie is killed in the game, he will also die in the "real" world.
Our post- Matrix cinema is still struggling to come up with the aesthetic rules for green screen-based films. The Star Wars prequels were cadaverous; Lord of the Rings movies never stopped swooshing the virtual cameras around; and 300 was junk food.
Gamebox 1.0 has the right idea. It doesn’t have the pedigree of David Cronenberg’s astonishing videogame deconstruction, Existenz; Gamebox was shot in just 12 days, on a shoestring budget (though two years were spent in post-production). But its visual strategy is a success, the ideas are snazzy, and you can tell the writer/directors, brothers David and Scott Hillenbrand, are actually interested in the subject. This film, much more ambitious than their others, will be their stepping stone to the big leagues; and it provides a trip that gamers, at least, are going to want to take.
Gamebox 1.0 is a direct-to-video release, newly available on DVD. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.