Britnee: Even as a grown woman, I find that I still watch a lot of children’s films, which is obvious from some of my past Movie of the Month choices (e.g., Magic in the Mirror, Something Wicked This Way Comes). The reason I get so much joy from indulging in films created for kids is that watching them whisks me away from my boring life of being a lame adult. Children’s films are full of imagination, creativity, and nostalgia – all things that I love. And so my selection for December’s Movie of the Month is yet another imaginative, nostalgic children’s film: Richard Franklin’s 1984 children’s adventure classic, Cloak & Dagger.
Cloak & Dagger is different from the average children’s movie, though, because it is extremely violent, making it super fun to watch as an adult. The film is about a dorky kid named Davey (Henry Thomas of E.T. fame) that spends most of his time going on adventures with his imaginary friend, Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman). Jack is the main character of Cloak & Dagger, a spy-adventure Atari game that Davey is obsessed with. After Davey is handed a Cloak & Dagger cartridge by a dying man in a stairwell, his life becomes Cloak & Dagger for real instead of for pretend. The cartridge contains top-secret government plans, and he must protect it at all costs. Things get crazy when a mysterious group of men hunt Davey down, intent to get their hands on the game (and to murder Davey in cold blood).
Brandon, were you surprised by the amount of violent action in Cloak & Dagger? What kind of reception do you think this film would receive if it was released in theaters today?
Brandon: I was definitely taken aback by the violence of Cloak & Dagger. Shocked, even. The film’s Video Game: The Movie gimmickry and casting of Dabney Coleman (in a dual role as both father & imaginary friend) promises a fun, goofy knockoff of WarGames about a young boy’s spy-mission fantasy antics. Instead, Cloak & Dagger mostly plays like a terrifying thriller about an international network of ruthless child murderers, only wearing its PG kids’ adventure movie pedigree as a disguise. The gleeful brutality of the child-hunting terrorists in Cloak & Dagger extends far beyond the normal Bad Guy goons just doing their jobs that typically fill the villain roles in these kinds of movies; they’re really looking forward to destroying their pint-sized tagrets (E.T.‘s Henry Thomas is paired up with a precocious Drew Barrymore-type for a sidekick, go figure), even more so than recovering their top-secret video game cartridge. The children of Cloak & Dagger are throttled, shot at, nearly stabbed, delivered bombs and, most cruelly, locked in car trunks with the corpses of their dead friends. Burly men burst into their homes, growling threats of how they’re going to blow up the entire neighborhood or shoot out the kids’ kneecaps before actually killing them, just to watch them bleed. All of this violence is supposedly in service of teaching Davey a lesson about how the adventurism he craves is no match for the stability of the loving home his father provides, but it is pushed to a traumatic extreme that definitely feels distinct for the genre.
As extreme as the brutality of Cloak & Dagger feels in retrospect, the film is clearly a product of its time. Sneaking into theaters just before the advent of the PG-13 rating, it got away with a lot of its violence because of the amoral grey area of not-quite-children’s-media that arose & died in its era. Along with Spielberg productions like Gremlins & Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Cloak & Dagger presented a confounding trend for the uptight pearl-clutchers at the MPAA: films that weren’t sexually crass enough to earn an R-rating, but were far too violent to be rated PG, requiring the invention of an entirely new rating. If released even months later, Cloak & Dagger would have been saddled with a PG-13 rating, which likely would have preempted it from becoming a modest hit. Cutting out that much of its potential customer base (by making a children’s movie only teenagers could see without a guardian in tow) would likely mean that a modern release of Cloak & Dagger either wouldn’t be greenlit in the first place, or would be sanitized of the violence that makes it distinct. Modern audiences struggle with embracing violent children-in-danger narratives in general, and the few that sneak through (Midnight Special, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Tomorrowland, to name a recent few) are often commercially shrugged off until they effectively disappear. The PG-rated brutality of Cloak & Dagger is just as 1980s-specific as the kids in the film being given free reign to ride the city bus wherever they like without chaperones and waving around black plastic toy guns in office buildings; it simply wouldn’t be permissed in modern day.
Of course, Cloak & Dagger is also adorably dated to the 1980s in its treatment of video game culture as an opportunity for a cash-grab, a flash-in-the-pan fad. One of the first instances of corporate synergy in the cinematic video game tie-in market (via a real-life Cloak & Dagger game simultaneously released to arcades by Atari) this film could have just as easily been titled Video Game: The Movie. Yet, it doesn’t seem to understand video games at all, likening all types of gaming (role play, cards, board games, arcades) as if they were all of the same cloth and not separate forms of amusement. CC, what do you make of Cloak & Dagger‘s adorably antiquated understanding of video game culture and how that tone clashes with the severity of its children-in-danger brutality? Does that juxtaposition date the film in a delightfully entertaining way or is it prohibitively distracting?
CC: I wasn’t there to experience it, so I could be wrong, but I feel like leisure activities have dramatically evolved in the past 50 years. When Cloak & Dagger came out, I’m not 100% sure that video games were seen by the wider culture as any different from table-top RPGs, card games, board games, or the games of skill seen in arcade halls. The types of amusements depicted in Cloak & Dagger were once considered the amusements of children – and children only. The only adult who plays video games in the movie was portrayed as a socially awkward nerd who is coded as existing in a state of arrested development. Now that video games are mainstream and firmly established as their own multi-billion-dollar industry, separate from all other types of gaming, I feel like the distance between these types of amusement has expanded. Further, the desire of the children of the 1980s to continue playing video games as they got older pushed it into the mainstream and increased the age of the average player. Today, I feel like table-top RPGs and campaign board games are more of a late-teen to adult amusement. Or perhaps I’m overestimating the level of perceived difference in types of gaming among actual gamers and the jumbling of elements has more to do with the writers’ cluelessness?
I never really felt that the clash between the gaming sensibilities and the violence were what was jarring. It was simply the protagonist’s young age that made the level of violence seem discordant. Personally, I liked the level of violence in this because it drove home the point that the Cold War Era table-top RPGs our protagonist was obsessed with included a huge amount of senseless violence. It’s only when you see that gore portrayed onscreen that you understand the intensity of the violence in the fantasy world he was already immersed in. On the page it’s fun and games, but in real life it’s terrifying.
Boomer, during our October Movie of the Month discussion for The Pit we talked a little bit about the mental health of Jamie, the sociopathic (but previously written as autistic or at least on the spectrum) lead. I feel like this film also walks a fine line between portraying its protagonist, Davey, as an obsessed child who gets carried away with his games to the point of hallucinating his hero Jack Flack – and a normal, but imaginative child who is truly trapped in a dangerous situation. How do you think this film handled Davey’s mental state? Did you feel that the level of judgement towards Davey’s game-playing was warranted?
Boomer: There’s certainly a level of “the newest form of entertainment is evil” panic present in the film, at least as far as Davey’s father is concerned. Some of this could simply be a filmmaker’s panic about video games; after all, history is filled with (externally moralized) panic about television replacing film, phonographs replacing people’s desire to learn how to play a musical instrument, and the printing press being an invention of the devil. With the advent of home gaming in the early 80s, there were many attempts to demonize that there newfangled video console. (Given that the video game industry is making money hand over fist and pulling in more revenue than movies, perhaps their concerns were justified.) Within the context of the film itself, Davey’s father’s concerns are justified: while he’s at work, his son gets so into his fantasy world that he’s wandering around downtown San Antonio and flashing very realistic toy guns in front of office lobby security. The security guard who sees a kid with what could easily be a real gun and doesn’t do anything about it is really bad at his job. While it would have been pretty bad for the elderly spies to escape with the secret stealth bomber plans hidden on the cartridge, this plot should never have happened, because Davey should have been asked where his parents were and his dad should have been called at work as soon as he flashed his piece in a crowded building. I live in Texas and the open carry laws are pretty lenient, but even in the 80s this wouldn’t have flown. The film sets up Mr. Osborne to be, within the context of this narrative, rightfully concerned that Davey is experiencing some degree of difficulty separating reality from fantasy, and so the lesson for children does seem to be that video games (and by association tabletop RPGs, etc.) are not to be trusted. Alternatively, a reasonable kid could also take away the lesson that, should you happen to witness a murder or something else you can’t immediately prove, maybe you should explain it to your parents in a realistic way and not talk about your imaginary friend in the process; that ups your credibility. Further, as with most stories in which new media are denigrated, most kids will recognize that the people making it have no idea how any of it works, which is in full evidence here in the way that no one making the movie understands how video games work or how figurines could play into it.
Brandon noted that this is part of that 80s zeitgeist of movies in which kids are doing pretty spectacular things, and they either fool their parents (who are useless), or their parents don’t believe them (again, useless), until at the end of the film Mom or Dad (never both in the 80s: Dad’s either left the family or Mom’s dead) demonstrate that they really do love Child Protagonist in a way that could be dangerous to them, but it all works out in the end. One of the things that this film didn’t do was have the two single parents of the kids have that moment at the end when everyone’s safe and they look at each other with a “maybe romance?” twinkle in their respective eyes. In fact, given the overall level of violence (it hasn’t been mentioned yet, but our Child Protagonist kills a man) and a pretty winding plot, there are probably more “rules” of kids movies from this era that are being broken that I’m overlooking. Britnee, as the expert on this genre and the person who’s seen Cloak & Dagger more than once, what are some of the other subversions and broken rules at play here?
Britnee: Piggybacking off your statements about the role of parents in 1980s kids’ movies, often when the child has a deceased parent there’s at least one or two scenes where they have an “I wish Mom/Dad was here” moment, or something is done to honor their parent’s memory. A memorable example would be when Bastian from The NeverEnding Story calls the Childlike Empress “Moonchild,” which is believed to be the name of his late mother. This trope even persists in animated children films of the 1980s. In The Land Before Time (which I still truly cannot watch without crying like a baby until this day), the spirit of Littlefoot’s deceased mother guides him on his journey to The Great Valley. The only mention of Davey’s deceased mother in Cloak & Dagger is from his father. Davey never talks about her or references her, and she never shows up to give him any sort of spiritual guidance. Perhaps having the memory of his mother more present in his decision-making would have softened up the film a bit?
What really stood out to me after watching Cloak & Dagger recently is how Davey was so willing to go with the elderly couple who end up being total creeps. For some reason, in both film and in real life, the older a person is, the safer they seem to be. The sweetly helpful elderly couple is all too common of a trope in children’s movies, so the twist that they are villains here is shocking. Trusting the old couple was the biggest mistake that Davey made because they were just as evil as the pack of child-killers chasing him. The most important lesson that can be learned from Cloak & Dagger is that Stranger Danger has no age limit.
Cloak & Dagger also strays away from the average 1980s kids’ movie because there’s really nothing magical or whimsical in it. There are no buried treasures or mythical creatures. The villains are grown men with guns; it takes place in San Antonio, Texas; and all that’s at stake are some lame secret government plans. Even though Jack is an imaginary friend, he doesn’t have any superpowers or magical abilities, which are typical imaginary friend qualities. The only thing in the film that was a little outside-of-the-box is the giant multi-sided dice in the opening scene. The more that I think about it, Cloak & Dagger is essentially a kids’ movie made for old men.
Brandon, do you think the film would have been better if Jack had superpowers? Like making weapons appear out of thin air for Davey to use against the bad guys?
Brandon: I was delighted by the jarring, Top Secret!-style spy-movie spoof that opens Cloak & Dagger, but I’m also glad the fantasy stopped there. That run-in with the giant dice is a concise, disorienting taste of Davey’s inner-fantasy life before the film moves on to contrast that escapism with the harsh, violent realities of the real world. Giving Jack Flack real-world superpowers might have made for a different kind of fun kids’ movie, but it would have ruined the dynamic that makes this one so special: the disconnect between Davey’s swashbuckling boys’ adventurism and the real-life implications of the violence that often defines those adventures. That dynamic is not only fascinating because of the horrific levels of 80s action movie violence leveled on children in a PG context, but also because of how it affects Davey’s relationship with his overworked father.
As Boomer already touched on, Cloak & Dagger stands out as the rare children’s film where both the kid & the parent actually have a point in their central conflict. Yes, Daddy-Dabney Coleman faces the same resentments about valuing career over family that plague most single parents in kids’ media. However, his explanation to Davey that “real heroes do boring things” like provide stability & shelter for their loved ones (instead of saving the world in grand, bullet-riddled adventures) is more justification than most single-parent archetypes get in this context. At the same time, Davey’s insistence that his dad play along with his interest in gaming so that they can spend intimate, quality time together is also justified by the danger that envelops him when he’s left to his own devices (namely, an Atari & a bus pass). Giving Imaginary Dabney Coleman real-life superpowers might have tipped the scales of justification further in Davey’s direction, which would be a shame since it’s rare to see such an evenly weighted parental conflict in a kids’ movie.
Cloak & Dagger was originally adapted from a short story (presumably written solely to pitch the movie) titled “The Boy Who Cried Murder,” so there’s plenty of implication that the film was meant to serve as a cautionary tale about getting lost in the fantasy of gaming – the same alarmist territory covered in the Tom Hanks Dungeons & Dragons cautionary tale Mazes & Monsters. At the same time, the film really wants you to invest in the struggling Atari console, so much so that it’s directly marketing a tie-in Cloak & Dagger video game by incorporating its cartridge & gameplay as a central part of the plot. Daddy-Dabney Coleman is also taught a lesson that parents should not blindly dismiss their kids’ interest in gaming, encouraging them to play along so they can be involved in their kids’ inner lives. CC, what do you make of this self-contradictory moralizing about the dangers of gaming and encouragement for parents to play Atari with their kids? Does Cloak & Dagger attempt “to have its cake & eat it too” or does it make a clear, substantive statement about whether gaming is a danger or if it’s harmless fun?
CC: It’s difficult to parse out the filmmakers’ intent, but there is definitely an internal struggle between the idea that games are a dangerous mind-suck and the reaction that golly-gee, that new Atari game sure looks swell. Even when they’re trying to sell you a new video game, they make it very clear that, unless you’re a well-adjusted parent trying to forge a stronger bond with your child, the only adults that play games are socially awkward nerds. They certainly spend more of the film’s runtime emphasizing the dark sides of gaming (obsession, fantastic delusion, misplaced trust in the elderly) that any pro-gaming messages seem like an afterthought, or were perhaps shoehorned in after Atari’s team watched the rough cut.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the intent was. Due to the video game crash of 1983, Atari halted production on the home console version of Cloak & Dagger (and the company went bankrupt shortly after). All of the screenshots in the film were pulled from the arcade version and the cartridges were fakes. Perhaps the conflicted tone of the movie gives us some insights into the turmoil of Atari’s marketing department. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Mark, imagine you were the right age when Cloak & Dagger came out (and Atari had released the home console version). Would you have wanted to purchase your own copy after seeing this movie?
Boomer: You know, I don’t think that I would have been that into it, but I’m not sure. I like video games and always have, but I’ve never really been much of a “gamer” (especially as, almost from its inception, online gaming has been a cesspool of homophobic and racist language used by children without oversight or parental guidance), and I’m old enough to remember when the gatekeepers of that fandom looked down on me for my unending love of Halo (then derogatorily referred to as a “Doom clone” before we came to call those games by the more appropriate term “first person shooter”). But as a kid growing up in economically depressed Southeastern Louisiana, we were always behind the times technologically, although I still clearly remember getting the original Game Boy for Christmas in 1995, six years after its release, and I’ve been lagging behind ever since; I bought my Xbox 360 in 2008, three years after it hit the shelves and even then only because my tax return that year was pretty good, and ten years later it’s still the most sophisticated thing that I own. That having been said, the depictions of video games in movies rarely piques my interest, and I don’t think that this would have been any different had I been the appropriate age for this film when it was released. It makes an interesting companion piece to The Wizard, which came out 5 years later and which I do remember from its television airings when I was younger; I remember being fond of that movie, but that might simply be the fact that even as a child I knew that I would follow Jenny Lewis to the ends of the earth. The first video game I can remember playing in the home (the local seafood po-boy place at the corner of Plank and Hwy 64 had both Pole Position and Ms. Pac-Man, both over ten years old by that point) was the bizarre Bouncing Babies, which came with our monochromatic MS-DOS HP that was inherited from a friend of the family in 1996 (again, 12 years after that game was originally released) and which I loved.
The actual gameplay of the Cloak & Dagger video game that we see doesn’t look like much fun, to be honest, and I don’t think even child-Boomer would have been impressed or interested. The graphics are bad, even for that time; compare the onscreen presentation to something like Frogger, Donkey Kong, and especially Dragon’s Lair, all of which predated or were contemporaries of C&D, and there’s really no contest. Cloak & Dagger looks muddied, clipped, and just plain ugly. Of course, that may just be the way that the refresh rate on the monitors that characters are using in the movie interacted with film, since actual screengrabs from the game look amazing in comparison. Still, as a kid, I don’t think that I would have been that interested, especially since even for a patient kid like me, this movie was long, and the gameplay was the least captivating thing about it. I would have been much more interested in the real-world make-believe play-acting that the kids in this movie did. In fact, if I remember correctly, I used to desperately want a pair of amazing walkie-talkies that I could use to talk to my best friend from a long way away more than I wanted anything else as a kid, a desire that was fanned by other movies with similarly unrealistic performance ranges (I’m looking at you, Three Ninjas).
The other thing that would have really stood out to me as a kid, even more than its video game subplot, were the villains. The elderly couple make for pretty memorable antagonists. I told a friend that I had watched this movie the day before, and he said that this was on the movies that his elementary school had on VHS to be pulled out on rainy days (which . . . yikes). When asking questions to make sure he was remembering the right movie, he didn’t mention any Atari cartridges or an imaginary friend: his strongest memory was of the evil elderly spies. Take from that what you will.
Boomer: So this movie is pretty blatantly propaganda for San Antonio’s public transportation system, right? That and the River Walk.
Britnee: Dabney Coleman looks like he smells like a mix of chewing tobacco and fabric softener. This applies to his role as Davey’s father and as Jack Flack.
Brandon: It was kind of a bold move both for Henry Thomas’s agent and for Atari to risk associating the young actor with gaming so soon after the E.T. video game disaster. The E.T. tie-in video game was such an embarrassing flop for Atari (due mostly to poor craftsmanship in its rush to market) that it’s cited as one of the major contributing factors for the video game industry crash of 1983 – the very thing that made desperate last-ditch revitalization efforts like Cloak & Dagger necessary in the first place. As confirmed in the 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over, thousands of copies of the E.T. game were buried in a New Mexico landfill to clear the unsold stock, each with Henry Thomas’s face on the cartridge. That’s not necessarily the first face I would think to cast in my movie about a video game fantasy adventure.
CC: As much as I like kids in danger, I dunno, this one doesn’t do it for me. I think Britnee got it right when she said it was a kids film for old men. Plus the opening scene reminded me of Top Secret! & The Naked Gun and I hate ZAZ/Leslie Nielsen films.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2018
-The Swampflix Crew