When praising our current Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s adventure pic Cloak & Dagger, there’s plenty of flashy details that distract from the novelty of the casting. The film’s cultural relic function as a desperate attempt to rescue Atari from the video game crash of 1983, its incongruous clash of boys’ adventurism spirit & cruel depictions of 80s action-violence, and its whimsical flights of escapist fantasy all overwhelm minor concerns with the details of its casting. The cast is such an afterthought, in fact, that no one thought twice about featuring Henry Thomas in the lead role, despite his face being on every cartridge of the E.T. video game that helped nearly bankrupt the company the year before. Thomas’s association with “the worst video game of all time” isn’t even the strangest novelty in the film’s casting. That honor belongs to That Guy! character actor Dabney Coleman, who’s cast in dual roles (!!) as the boy’s father & imaginary friend. As Henry Thomas’s dad, Coleman is a straight-laced family man widower doing his best to keep his home in order. As his imaginary friend Jack Flack, he’s a James Bond-type world adventurer, prepared at a moment’s notice to take out an entire warring country using only his American fists. Both roles are used in the film to teach Thomas a lesson about the dangers of escapist fantasy – the dad in stern talks about what true heroism looks like in the real world and Jack Flack in placing the boy in danger through his reality-detached fearlessness. As if this dual-role lesson about the fantasy-life dangers of video games & RPGs weren’t enough of a novelty alone, Coleman’s casting feels like a bizarre choice because of its echoing of a role he played exactly one year earlier, in what’s likely the most beloved alarmist anti-video game screed of all time.
Dabney Coleman’s role in the 1983 Cold War thriller WarGames feels like a perfect synthesis of his two roles in Cloak & Dagger. With his hair dyed unnaturally black like Jack Flack’s, Coleman plays a no-nonsense military man who both has no time for the fantasies of teenage gaming culture and lives the unreal international espionage lifestyle that’s exaggerated for comic effect in Flack. Coleman’s performance in WarGames is such a perfect midpoint between his two characters in Cloak & Dagger that the film feels more like an audition reel than it does like inspirational source material. He’s even called on to give Matthew Broderick’s teen protagonist a stern fatherly talking to about the dangers of video game fantasy, despite not being the boy’s father. In Cloak & Dagger, he’s right to warn his son about losing touch with reality in his roleplay gaming fantasies, but misses the larger point of how RPG’s & video games could be useful as a bonding tool with the lonely, grieving boy. In WarGames he’s right to update military procedure with computer programming automation, but misses the larger point of how video gameplay & gamesmanship logic are useful in war strategy – particularly in stalemate conflicts like The Cold War. As often happens with character actors, all three roles between these two films feel like different variations on the same archetype, and it’s funny that both of these Beware the Video Game movies thought to cast Coleman as their browbeating fuddy-duddies. As Cloak & Dagger is the more eccentric, over-the-top work, it plays almost like a parody of his grounded (even if archetypal) performance in WarGames. Both films’ paralleled arrival (along with their accompanying Atari game tie-ins) at the exact time the video game industry crashed only make comparing the two films all the more appealing; Colema’s casting in both projects is the perfect excuse to oblige.
Objectively speaking, WarGames is likely a superior film to Cloak & Dagger, but I’m not sure that quality craftsmanship is what I’m looking for in an 80s relic about how video game fantasy can put real lives at risk. A pre-fame Matthew Broderick & Ally Sheedy star as teen brats who hope to hack into a video game company’s unreleased titles, but instead mistakingly access a military supercomputer that nearly instigates WWIII. It’s the same video game fantasy leading to life-threatening danger premise of Cloak & Dagger, except in this case the danger is global instead of purely personal. As the teens play with real-life nuclear weapons as if they were toys, the tension between harmless bedroom fun & dead-serious war room retaliation says a lot about the automation, abstraction, and depersonalization of war (which has only gotten more intense in the last 35 years). At the same time, that abstraction & depersonalization makes its actual stakes feel almost too distanced to fully hit home, as opposed to the more hands-on dangers of video game fantasy in Cloak & Dagger. The conflict of a hacked, haywire computer nearly triggering nuclear war is truer to life than a boy’s imaginary friend landing him in a deadly game of international espionage, but there’s still something more affecting about watching a grown man pull a knife on an E.T.-era Henry Thomas or threaten to shoot out the child’s kneecaps “just to watch him bleed.” WarGames’s video game alarmism is also cleverer than Cloak & Dagger’s in the way it makes the video game itself a deranged character threatening death & destruction; in Cloak & Dagger the cartridge everyone is after is more or less a MacGuffin. Clever or not, I still find myself more drawn to the over-the-top, cartoonish antics of Cloak & Dagger (especially when they clash with brutal child-threatening violence), and the difference between the two films’ aesthetics is perfectly summarized by Coleman’s cartoonish performance of Jack Flack therein.
You don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities between WarGames and Cloak & Dagger: two alarmist thrillers about the dangers of video games that arrived just when their subject’s industry was crashing, but were developed as Atari games anyway. Dabney Coleman’s casting as three characters across these two movies only helps further illustrate both the already apparent parallels between them and the difference in their respective tones. WarGames, as the more tonally sober war thriller, won out in the long run in both respect & notoriety, but the much sillier Cloak & Dagger deserves even more respect for its willingness to go for the jugular in ways you might not expect – especially considering how silly Coleman is in the Jack Flack persona.
For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our comparison to another alarmist 80s roleplay gaming thriller Mazes & Monsters, and last week’s look at the death of Atari.
One of the more interesting aspects of our current Movie of the Month, the violent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger, is that it was in part designed to rescue Atari from financial ruin. After the video game crash of 1983 that nearly put Atari out of business for good, the ailing company hoped a movie tie-in deal might help boost its popularity (and promote video game culture in general) by joining the ranks of popular films like Tron & WarGames. Hitching its wagon to the in-development Cloak & Dagger project, which was eventually named after a real-life Atari 2600 cartridge that never made it to market, was a strange choice for a couple of reasons. On a big-picture level, Cloak & Dagger functions as alarmist propaganda about the dangers of video games & fantasy roleplay, so its dual role as an advertisement for a specific Atari game seems a little self-defeating. On a smaller, more specific level, the film’s pint-sized lead Henry Thomas seemed like an odd choice for a video game poster boy, seeing as how he was already closely associated with the industry’s 1983 downfall. It was kind of a bold move both for Henry Thomas’s agent and for Atari to risk associating the young actor, best known for his role as Elliott in E.T., with video games again 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 1983 industry crash – the very thing that made desperate last-ditch efforts like Cloak & Dagger necessary in the first place. The game was such a flop that it inspired an urban legend about its unsold stock being buried in a New Mexico landfill—hundreds of thousands of deadstock cartridges with Henry Thomas’s face on the cover discarded underground. That’s not necessarily the first face I would think to cast in my movie meant to rescue the industry.
The most fascinating thing about the E.T. video game legend is that’s it’s (at least partially) true. The 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over is especially illuminating on the subject, tracking the search for and excavation of the E.T. landfill meant to prove its existence. In a way, it’s a total success. Excavation crews uncover a landfill packed with thousands of unsold Atari games in Alamogordo NM, near where scientists first tested the nuclear bomb. An entirely different kind of bomb, E.T.: “the worst video game of all time,” was included among those buried titles, but it did not comprise as much of the loot as the urban legend may have suggested. Only 10% of the video game cartridges recovered in that New Mexico landfill featured Henry Thomas’s face; buried along with E.T.: The Video Game were much better-respected titles like Yars’ Revenge, Pac-Man, and Centipede. Blaming the massive cartridge burial and, by extension, the entire video game crash of ’83 on the E.T. game just makes for a better story, whether or not the infamous flop deserved the mockery. Much of Atari: Game Over functions like rehabilitative PR for the E.T. game in that way. It explains how the game was rushed to market in just five weeks’ time to capitalize on the Christmas season, so that its very existence is kind of a computer programming miracle for the game’s designer, Howard Scott Warshaw. Although its frustrating gameplay that it lands its avatar, an unrecognizably pixelated E.T., in holes from which he can’t escape is explained to be far from the worst gameplay to grace the Atari console; it only seemed that way it compares to the quality of the movie. Interviews with Spielberg also confirm that the director himself approved the game before it hit the market, so it seems unfair that was effectively driven out of the video game business after E.T.’s failure, despite having designed more beloved games like Yars’ Revenge and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tie-in. Most damningly (but perhaps least surprisingly), industry experts also explain how the video game crash of ’83 was far from E.T.’s fault; the game’s failure was just the convenient scapegoat for much larger financial issues. The whole film serves as a pretty convincing argument for why Henry Thomas shouldn’t be barred from video game adaptations after the E.T. game’s failure, even if the optics are initially questionable.
As useful as I found Atari: Game Over in illustrating exactly what happened with the E.T. video game landfill, I can’t exactly recommend it as a well-made documentary. The only feature film produced for X-Box’s video content wing X-Box Originals, this very slight 66min doc feels like it has a target audience of 14-year-old boys and not that much wider. Director Zak Penn brings a decent pedigree to the project, as a writer for many major Hollywood comic book adaptations & one-time collaboration with Werner Herzog on The Incident at Loch Ness, but he mostly crafts this documentary like the video game equivalent of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Since the actual excavation of the Atari landfill can’t comprise an entire feature’s runtime on its own, the film busies itself crosscutting between the dig & an oral history of the early days of Atari that led to the E.T. debacle. There’s a lot of useful insight to be pulled from these interviews, but they just as often feel like a boys’ club glory days nostalgia trip – boosting the programmers’ own nerdy legacy instead of maintaining properly distanced, documentarian honesty. Ready Player One novelist Ernest Cline is a perfect mascot for how this unexamined, nerdy pop-culture worship comes across in its worst moments. He injects himself into the narrative of the landscape excavation it the cringiest of ways, staging a road trip to witness the dig by driving in a replica Back to the Future DeLorean he picks up form Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, accompanied by a life-size E.T. replica in the passenger seat. The self-described “screenwriter, novelist, and gentlemen adventurer” provides some useful context about how E.T.’s gameplay helped inspired the video game “Easter Egg” trope that guided the plot of Ready Player One, but mostly he just serves as the Guy Fieri of the piece—representing both its TV special qualities & its unwillingness to engage with pop culture nerdery as anything but The Greatest Thing Ever.
Regardless of Game Over’s quality as documentary filmmaking, the movie is extremely useful in illustrating both how the unsold E.T. cartridges featuring Henry Thomas’s face aren’t entirely responsible for the 1983 video game crash and how the urban legend surrounding them was so strong that casting him in Cloak & Dagger was risky anyway. As supplementary material, the film is more an act of reputation rehabilitation for the E.T. game & its creator than it is a revelation of anything directly related to Cloak & Dagger. Still, it’s an illustrative history of the cultural climate Cloak & Dagger was released in, a time when the future of video games as a lucrative industry did not seem as set in stone as it does now. It has no trouble finding nerds who were on the ground floor for those troublesome early days to reminisce about the era as if they were Guy Fieri singing the praises of Donkey Sauce.
For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at another alarmist 80s roleplay gaming thriller, Mazes & Monsters.
Our current Movie of the Month, the 1984 children’s action-thriller Cloak & Dagger, has a lot to say about the dangers of fantasy roleplay gaming, but it’s all very confused & self-conflicting. If nothing else, the film seems to be confused about what gaming culture even is, conflating tools like video game cartridges and 12-sided board game dice as if they belonged to the same activity. Additionally, it cannot decide whether it wants to scare parents about the dangers of fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or if it wants to promote the purchase of Atari cartridges like the one that gets its young tyke protagonist into a heap of trouble. Besides the film’s horrific eagerness to put children in life-threatening danger, I’d point to that self-conflicted messaging as one of the film’s major draws. In a key exchange in the first act, a father & son (Dabney Coleman & Henry Thomas) argue about the value of fantasy roleplaying and, in what’s rare for a children’s film from the era, both sides of the divide have a point – the father in pleading with his son to consider the practical realities of the world around him and the son in asking the father to participate in his gaming interests as a way of bonding. That well-balanced approach to the topic of fantasy roleplaying may be smart & nuanced, but it does dampen the novelty of Cloak & Dagger’s larger tendency to function as an alarmist siren to all parents everywhere that roleplay fantasy is corrupting their children’s minds. Thankfully, another early 80s gaming drama picked up the slack with a much less nuanced, raving lunatic screed against the dangers of D&D. And it even starred one of America’s most beloved celebrities.
The 1982 made-for-CBS melodrama Mazes & Monsters is a vision of what Cloak & Dagger would be like without dramatic nuance or tact. Based on a “true crime” novel about a real-life disappearance case where a fanatic D&D player committed suicide, the film deliberately skews logical cause & effect patterns to make RPGs out to be child-endangering killers. Mazes & Monsters opens with a news report explaining what fantasy roleplay gaming is and how it can directly lead to “loss of distinction between reality & fantasy, and possibly the loss of life in the process.” We’re then introduced to four college-age friends, each with deep-seated personal issues, who regular meet to play a fictional RPG called Mazes & Monsters when they should be focusing on their school work. Tom Hanks, in his first leading role, plays the most troubled of the foursome – a likely schizophrenic outsider haunted by the disappearance of his older brother. While the other players in his gaming circle have no trouble using the escapism of Mazes & Monsters to forget their personal issues (romantic, parental, school-related, or otherwise), Hanks’s fraying protagonist struggles with coming back down from the fantasy to return to normal life. He refuses to break character, hallucinates demons from the game in his real-life environment, and eventually runs off to NYC on a suicide mission to jump off The Twin Towers. His friends eventually call for help when they can’t stop him from doing a 9/11 to himself, but in the process feel compelled to lie about their involvement in the game, endangering him even further in their cautious self-preservation. Everything that touches the Mazes & Monsters game only leads to malady & misery.
The amusing thing about Mazes & Monsters is that it contradicts its own message just as much as Cloak & Dagger; it just seems to be entirely unaware that it’s doing so. The film shoots itself in the foot by foolishly swapping around the cause & effect of its alarmist fearmongering. The way the movie frames it, roleplaying games cause a psychological break with reality that generates a series of personal problems in the impressionable, weak-minded youngsters who succumb to their temptations of escapist fantasy. However, it also frames the Mazes & Monsters gamers as already-troubled youths who use the RPG lifestyle as a means of forming comraderie with like-minded peers. Tom Hanks’s troubled youth is already predisposed to schizophrenia & suicidal urges when he arrives to college; the social activity of roleplay gaming merely provides him with a safety net community who can call for proper medical attention when he needs it. Of course, this glorified Afternoon Special about the dangers of gaming misinterprets this dynamic to the opposite extreme and practically characterizes the RPG community as occultist freaks. Late night Mazes & Monsters sessions are candlelit as if they were witchy seances. Dragon-like demons (or at least hallucinations thereof) are summoned in condemned, life-threatening caves. Worst yet, the game is warned to even inspire your kids to run off to New York City, the biggest temple of sin since Sodom & Gomorrah. The depictions of fantasy roleplay gaming start off harmless & true enough – with college age nerds putting off studying for a Physics exam so they can roll 12-sided dice in a cramped dorm room. By the end of the film, however, it’s played with the authenticity & occult-fearing alarmism of a live-action adaptation of a Chick Tract.
As amusing as Mazes & Monsters’s alarmist rants about the otherworldly danger of roleplay fantasy gaming can be, and as adorable as it is to see Tom Hanks find his humble beginnings in a project so embarrassing in its central conceit, the movie is unfortunately too muted & slow-moving to recommend as an over-the-top novelty. It’s interesting as a comparison point to Cloak & Dagger (and the two films’ titles could be swapped with hardly anyone noticing), as it demonstrates what that superior film could have devolved into if it had fully committed to its scolding about the dangers of gaming. Cloak & Dagger‘s dual purpose as an advertisement for the flailing Atari 2600 console added an interesting, self-challenging layer to its anti-gaming moralism missing from Mazes & Monsters. Without it, that made-for- CBS melodrama only challenges its own message by missing the point entirely – advertising for roleplaying games as a source of community & comraderie in a misguided attempt to condemn the harmless activity for its supposed reality-distorting sorcery.
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
As a pasty pro wrestling fan with a film blog, I’m comfortable with being identified as a nerd, but I’ve never quite felt like the right kind of nerd. Superhero comics, video games, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, anime – the staples of Nerd Culture have never been the pop media I personally obsess about. It’s not that my own nerdy obsessions are especially esoteric; I’ve just always felt like somewhat of an outsider when observing what typical nerds cosplay as or geek out over. When the pasty nerd hero of Ready Player One sneers at the business dick villain pretending to share his interests, “A fanboy knows a hater,” I had to think to myself that I likely qualify as neither. I also suspect director Steven Spielberg is an objective outsider to that distinction as well. Looking at the scruffy, near-sighted goon, it’s not too difficult to imagine that he’s seen the wrong end of a swirly or a locker-shove in his past, especially considering his life-long interest in science fiction. However, it is difficult to imagine him caring about the particular Nerd Shit on display in Ready Player One. Although there is plenty evidence to the contrary, I just can’t picture Spielberg wasting days behind the controller of a marathon session of Halo or repeatedly rewatching Akira in his Cheetos-stained pajamas. Roughly 75% of the Nerd Shit references that weren’t verbally acknowledged Ready Player One’s dialogue when over my head and I suspect a millionaire over twice my age wouldn’t have fared much better (many of the background details were reportedly included by special effects teams without his explicit request). As an outsider, I must admit I’m baffled by the consensus that Ready Player One is intended to be seen as a fun popcorn movie. To me, it’s a nightmare vision of a plausible near-future Hell that we’re helplessly barreling towards. Maybe that qualifies me as a hater. I wouldn’t know; you’d have to ask a fanboy. I do suspect, though, that the film’s director shares that same point of view somewhere beneath his King Nerd exterior.
Gatekeeping is perhaps the ultimate qualifier of true nerdom. Nerds tend to declare what pop culture is objectively Good or Bad as if their opinion is law and no interests outside their own have value. Like how 10 Cloverfield Lane exposes the creepiness of Doomsday preppers by depicting the dystopian world they secretly desire, Ready Player One envisions the logical, terrifying result of what this pop culture gatekeeping would look like if it were taken as seriously as every self-aggrandizing nerd wants it to be. A lonely trillionaire nerd (Mark Rylance) builds a virtual reality video game universe where his own pop culture obsessions (mostly white boy nerd shit from the 1980s) are canon as the greatest works of art of all time. Because of the universal popularity of his immersive gaming system, this über-Steve Jobs experiences the ultimate power fantasy all nerds crave: he’s celebrated for his superior tastes in esoteric pop culture. If he was into it, it’s fantastic & worthy of scholarly study. If he wasn’t, it essentially never existed. By the year 2045, long after his death, this celebration of one man’s pop culture tastes has driven the world into a digital Hell. Most people live impoverished in overpopulated slums (picture a game of Jenga where the building blocks are mobile homes). They escape their grim surroundings by immersing themselves in a dead trillionaire’s nerdy pop culture utopia through increasingly realistic virtual reality technology. No new art or creativity is necessary, since their preferred world’s creator isn’t around to approve it. This dystopian vision feels like a less classist version of Idiocracy in that way, where the world is driven to its lowest point by mindless 80s nostalgia instead of “bad breeding.” If a single, gatekeeping Nerd won the ultimate prize of being taken seriously as a tastemaker and had their own obsessions guide the establishment of a universal monoculture, this is exactly the world we would eventually live in. It’s a goddamn nightmare.
The catch about Ready Player One (and the internal tension that makes it interesting) is that it was written by one of those gatekeepers. Writer/stand-up comedian Ernest Cline penned both the film’s screenplay (along with several co-writers) and its source material novel. Cline takes gleeful pleasure in the material’s endless pop culture references, but that doesn’t feel at all reinforced on Spielberg’s end. Spielberg’s adventurism works in tandem with Cline’s geeked-out tone in an occasional chase sequence or flash of goofball humor, but as a whole their work feels more like a philosophical debate than a blissful collaboration. Cline constructs a story about a young nerd (Tye Sheridan) wooing another young nerd (Olivia Cooke) and saving the world by playing video games with incredible skill & displaying esoteric 80s pop trivia. It should be a joyous power fantasy for the like-minded video game obsessives in the world, but it instead looks & feels like a continuation of the grim, grimy futurism of Minority Report & A.I.: Artificial intelligence (two of the best films of Spielberg’s career, but also two of the most acidic). By all accounts, Cline’s writing style tends to dwell in long lists of nerdy pop culture ephemera, taking time to build its own gatekeeping canon of exactly what nerdy shit is worth preserving. By contrast, Spielberg’s film feels unconcerned with dwelling on its references at all, as plentiful as they are. Instead of relishing the joy of seeing disparate characters form across all of nerdom share the screen, Ready Player One essentially glosses over them in favor of fleshing out its grim dystopian future. There are plenty of extratextual characters referenced in the film, but they mostly appear so briefly in the background in moments of chaos that you hardly have time to notice them. It’s like Ernie Bushmiller’s “three rocks” principle: there are exactly just as many nostalgic references included as necessary to create the illusion that the film is overrun with them. In the few times when the film does dwell on them, their distant memory distorts the original intent of the artwork that’s supposedly being celebrated, like a copy of a copy. The Shining is now a jump-scare fest; the Iron Giant is now a ruthless killing machine; Chucky is all maniacal laughter instead of smart-ass quips; etc. Spielberg doesn’t take the same joy in referencing past works that Cline does; he practically mocks the way that thoughtless, performative celebration changes their fundamental nature. Spielberg’s not quite the same level of satirist as Paul Verhoeven, to put it lightly, but I haven’t seen a film this at odds with its own source material since Starship Troopers.
Maybe I’m giving Spielberg too much benefit of the doubt here. Maybe he does spend his lonely nerd nights creaming his Zelda pajamas while dreaming about how cool it would be if Gundam fought Mechagodzilla. Either way, Ready Player One plays much closer to the grim future-tech prophecies of his own early 2000s sci-fi than the pure-fun video game crossover indulgences of a Super Smash Bros or a Marvel vs. Capcom. Like the surveillance state speculation of Minority Report or the cruelty of artificial intelligence creation in A.I., Ready Player One taps into the potential, foreseeable darkness of a world that’s already nostalgia-obsessed, with escapist pleasures to be found in the anonymity of Internet avatars & in watching strangers make money playing video games on YouTube. If nerds win the culture war, this is a plausible vision of where we’re headed. If you look to Ready Player One as mindless popcorn fun, your enthusiasm for that vision might be determined by where you fall on the fanboy/hater divide. To me, the film is much more rewarding if you consider the ways it makes its own Nostalgia Bait fun appear grotesque & terrifying, regardless of what Spielberg’s intent may have been. Maybe the film works as a fanboy/hater Rorschach test in that way. Audiences who see a love letter to nerdy pop culture where Gremlins, Goro, and Batman can finally share the same universe can maintain their fanboy status. Others who see a deeply depressing glimpse into a near-future Hell, like I did, might just be haters after all (at least in Ernest Cline’s nomenclature). However, haters can take solace in the likelihood that Spielberg’s secretly a hater was well, considering how similar this grim vision is to his past dystopian world-building. Paradoxically, you’d have to be generous to classify Spielberg or myself as anything but nerds, even if we are the wrong kind of nerds. Let’s hope we’re aren’t found out as imposters in the virtual reality Hell that apparently awaits us.
As I proudly count Videodrome as one of my all-time favorite films, I have no excuse for how long I’ve put off watching its kissing cousin, eXistenZ. Like how all Cronenberg horrors are driven by unspoken, cerebral fear, maybe I was subconsciously worried about seeing one of my most loved works lessened in its cultural update from cable television moral outrage to video game paranoia. eXistenZ even opens with a murder executed through an organic firearm made of bone & teeth, which picks up right where the flesh gun assassination conclusion of Videodrome leaves off. I wasn’t at all disappointed by my experience with eXistenZ, however. The film didn’t tarnish my appreciation of earlier Cronenberg works like Videodrome, but rather enhanced them by providing better context for the director’s career at large. Not only does a Cronenberg spin on the video game paranoia explored in less-horrific titles like The Matrix & TRON have an instant appeal to it, but eXistenZ also serves as a great bridge between the cerebral body horror of the director’s early career and the cold philosophical comedies he’s been making since the mid-2000s.
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a hotshot virtual reality game developer who’s workshopping her greatest work to date, eXistenZ. The focus group testing of the game is disrupted when an assassination attempt is made with the aforementioned bone gun, leaving the developer/artist vulnerably injured. A marketing nerd played by Jude Law then finds himself operating as a makeshift bodyguard, whisking the developer away to safety while a vaguely-defined They (a paranoid conspiracy theory combination of both anti-gamers & gaming corporations) chase the pair down. Reality blurs as the two new “friends” delve into multiple levels of games within games to ensure the safety of both eXistenZ and its creator. There are no TRON-like digital landscapes around to give away what is “reality” vs what is eXistenZ, so the movie mostly amounts to a colossal mind fuck of Cronenberg needling his audience into a paranoid questioning of the validity of every character & every story beat. His version of a virtual reality future is much grimier & more organic than most similarly-minded sci-fi, works that tend to vizualize their own futurescapes with crisp lines & sanitized spaces. Cronenberg’s horrific vision is not the reality presented by the gaming systems, “meta flesh game pods” that plug into players’ spines through an umbilical chord & a puckered asshole of an outlet, or “bio-port” in the movie’s parlance. The writhing game pods, which look like gigantic human ears with clitoral nobs, make technology itself to be a literal horror, which really essentializes the paranoia films like The Matrix & The 13th Floor labor to communicate.
It’s interesting that no character in eXistenZ ever once says the term “video game,” yet we know exactly what medium Cronenberg is targeting. The glowing flesh cell phones & casual acceptance of virtual reality as a commonplace technology suggest a distant future where video games are a long-obsolete artform, but not so distant that the anus-like bio-ports & umbilical chord connectors that make gaming possible are acceptable to everyone. eXistenZ gleefully taps into the sexual taboo of female on male penetration, lingering on moments when Jennifer Jason Leigh has to lube up & enter Jude Law’s bio-port for stabs of psychosexual unease. Cronenberg sets up a fictional work where ours is “the most pathetic level of reality,” but the biological technology necessary to transcend it is a source of bottomless horror. Much like with Videodrome, he uses that bodily unease to open the film to metacommentary on the value of his own art. While Videodrome explores the violent & sexual urges titillated by a shifting media landscape, eXistenZ focuses on the nature of artificial realities created in individual movies, calling into question what qualifies as “real.” Characters detach from their in-game personas to critique the quality of the dialogue they’re compelled to say & what value a scripted sex scene has on their characterization. eXistenZ feels like the beginning of Cronenberg coldly playing with philosophical humor in conspicuously artificial environments, an aesthetic that became full fledged by the time he made more recent titles like Cosmopolis & Maps to the Stars. The joy is in watching him achieve that aesthetic through the technology-paranoid body horror tools of his earliest classics before abandoning them entirely.
From the continuation of Videodrome ideology to its dream logic sci-fi mindfuckery to the surprise of seeing a large chunk of the Last Night cast reassembled for a gross-out horror, I was always going to be predisposed to enjoy eXistenZ. It felt almost as if I were destined or scripted to watch & enjoy the film, a fate I delayed for as long as I could, but did not avoid indefinitely. As I’m wrapping up this review, I’m feeling a phantom itch where my bio-port should be, which is the exact kind of reality-questioning paranoia I hope to catch from all of my Cronenberg fare. If Jennifer Jason Leigh enters any room I’m in for the remainder of my life I’m going to let out an uncontrollable scream.
My biggest fear when I learned that Paul WS Anderson had returned to the director’s chair for the fourth Resident Evil film is that he would completely undo what that entry’s predecessor had accomplished. Russell Mulcahy’s Resident Evil: Extinction elevated the franchise’s production value & traded in its overgrown nu mental tone for a goofy Mad Max vibe, making for the best entry in the series to date. My fears were confirmed; Anderson did indeed slide the franchise back into its The Matrix But With Zombies creative rut, even daring to include gratuitous shots of “bullet time” effects to drive the point home. Luckily for Afterlife, I liked the goofy nu metal technofuturism of the first two Resident Evil films, so it’s not like the territory it returned to was all boredom & despair. I’d just be lying if I didn’t find the Original Recipe Resident Evil flavor a little bland after Extinction had spiced it up.
The film opens with a slow pan up a Japanese punk’s leather costume as she solemnly contemplates something mysterious before turning full zombie & igniting a breakout that consumes Tokyo. MIlla Jovovich, the franchise’s anchor, then narrates a plot summary of the first three films in the series, the first time Anderson found that kind of housekeeping necessary for his convoluted, yet video game-thin cyberpunk zombie yarn. We then join Alice (Jovovich) as she raids one of the Umbrella Corporation’s seemingly endless supply of underground bunkers, sporting her latest film-defining costume change: a sleek black ninja outfit complete with swords & throwing stars. A couple decapitations & some telepathic nonsense later and she’s immediately killed, revealing that she was a clone the whole time and that there are plenty more Alices where that came from (a repeat of Extinction’s opening, in a way). Some Agent Smith-looking motherfucker stabs her in the neck with a serum that takes away her ass-kicking superpowers and she spends the rest of the plot hunting him down while collecting any of the world’s straggling uninfected she can on the way.
This is easily the most low-energy, self-serious entry of the Resident Evil franchise so far. There are so many shots of Jovovich flying a small airplane, searching out the window for a purpose to be onscreen, when Afterlife could’ve just as easily held onto the army of Jovovich clones it blew up in the first scene instead and made a much more interesting picture. Besides a few zombies with some octopus mouths and a mutated giant swinging a CG axe, there just isn’t much Afterlife has to offer that you couldn’t get from the three franchise entries that precede it. The film seemingly has three directives: to openly riff on The Matrix, to make gratuitous use of the then-recent Avatar 3D technology, and to promote the A Perfect Circle single that plays multiple times throughout. Afterlife indulges in frequent enough goofy action sequences to feel occasionally worthwhile, but after the series heights of Extinction I had come to expect more than that. As a director, Anderson feels a little limp here, stuck in an outdated mode of nu metal cinema like a slightly more endearing (and significantly less funded) Zack Snyder. I’m still willing to afford the final two entries into the franchise an open mind, but the bland diminished returns of Afterlife has significantly dampened my expectations.
When we binged on a small selection of “iconic” video game adaptations for episode #11 of the podcast, I was surprised to see Paul WS Anderson’s name pop up twice in a row as a director of both Mortal Kombat & Resident Evil (2002). Not only is the video game adaptation not a genre you’d typically associate with an auteur’s go-to passion for repeat offerings (outside maybe a stray Uwe Boll-type), but Anderson’s two contributions to our list were actually two of the better films, bested only by 1994’s Super Mario Bros in terms of pure entertainment value. Of his two entries, Resident Evil was the biggest surprise in terms of competency. Mortal Kombat had the narrative upper hand of a ridiculous interdimensional martial arts tournament to boost its camp value (along with a delightfully obnoxious theme song & a scenery-devouring Christopher Lambert). Resident Evil, on the other hand, was a seemingly straightforward zombie picture, so it was downright bizarre that Anderson managed to make it even moderately memorable in the face of a market that’s been overcrowded with similar works for decades. The Milla Jovovich-helmed action vehicle was actually an interesting trifle, however slight, one made novel by a wealth of weird details like A.I. children, genetically mutated beasts, and menacing corporations with dystopian designs on world domination.
What’s even more surprising than Anderson managing to make a watchable film out of the Resident Evil video game franchise is that he did not stop at just one film. The 6th (and supposedly final) entry in the series has just reached theaters over a decade later and both Anderson & Jovovich have shared some level of involvement in the series throughout its entire run, which is a much higher level of consistency than you’d expect for a zombie video game franchise. The second film in the series, Resident Evil: Apocalypse (which obviously didn’t follow through on the finality of its title) wasn’t half bad either. It expands the bunker-confined action of the lower budget first film by bringing its zombie breakout above ground. Its world-building details like the exact nature & temporal location of its Raccoon City setting, its menacing (and hilariously named) villain the Umbrella Corporation, and the exact skills & origins (and even name) of its Ripley stand-in (Jovovich), all remain fuzzy to me after two full-length features. All you need to know to make it through a Resident Evil movie is that zombies & capitalists are bad, while women & guns are good. The rest is all shoot-em-up nonsense and militaristic zombie movie mayhem, a triumph of action horror cinema only in that it should be impossible for Anderson to make something so generic so delightful to watch and, yet, he’s done it at least twice.
I think Resident Evil‘s key to surviving as a notable action horror franchise is its dedication to excess. The film couldn’t logically bring in Jovovich’s hero immediately to deal with the above-ground breakout so it created a second badass with a gun cliché (a cop named Valentine, hilariously) to shoot some undead baddies in her initial absence. There’s some first person POV shooting in a police station and found footage shenanigans with a rogue news broadcaster that helpfully treads plot water until Jovovich can burst onto the scene by flying a motorcycle through a church’s stained glass windows and then turning said motorcycle into a makeshift bomb. Once our two badass ladies join teams everything else is an action-packed blur of knives, grenades, rocket launchers, and the undead bursting out of graves like a cover version of the “Thriller” video. New locations play like video game levels. The film’s Final Boss characer is a new genetic mutant called Genesis (who vaguely resembles the version of Bane in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin). Everything is all very loud and violent and impossibly dumb, to the point where the monotone excess becomes its own artform and your options are either to play along with the film’s buffoonery or to feel like your better senses are constantly being assaulted.
I don’t care to learn any more about this series’ mythology than the little I can catch between explosions and bullets. Jared Harris (Lane from Mad Men) pops up here as some kind of smart programmer type who’s constantly hacking into the mainframe or some such nonsense and Iian Glen (Jorah from Game of Thrones) swoops in at the last minute for some Wolverine-type experiments & mumblings about clone technology, but outside of those actors’ before they were C-list stars pedigree, their presence signifies nothing. No one really matters here outside Jovovich & Anderson. Even the newly introduced & oddly omnipresent character of Valentine is mostly just a place holder until Jovovich can arrive above-ground, guns & motorcycle blazing (and the less I say about the film’s wisecracking pimp comic relief, the better). I’m sincerely amazed that a single filmmaker & a single performer have stuck with such an explosively inane series for as long as Jovovich & Anderson have. I also wonder if there are wholeheartedly dedicated fans of the series out there who care deeply about its AI, genetic monsters, and walking dead mythology enough to have been counting the days until the series wrapped up in its final installment. I can’t imagine being at all invested in Resident Evil’s narrative throughline & overarching themes, but I will admit that these films are much louder, dumber, and more entertainingly chaotic than I expected them to be and I’m curious about how they can keep up that stamina for four more installments.
Welcome to Episode #11 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eleventh episode, James & Brandon discuss five iconic video game adaptations from the 90s & 00s. Also, Brandon makes James watch Laurie Anderson’s experimental documentary/meditation piece Heart of a Dog (2015) for the first time. Enjoy!
Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were also provided by James.
-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn