Arcade: the Official Nerfed Llamas Review – the VR revolution has finally arrived… in 1993!
It was difficult finding a starting place for the kick off of my self proclaimed Full Moon Features month. There are so many titles to select from, in so many different genres. Ultimately, I just started flipping through the Full Moon catalog and decided I would aim for a Sci-Fi flick to start with and landed on the 1993 film Arcade. Part of the fun of reviewing all of these films, especially the films from the 80s & 90s, is that I get to rediscover them and gauge my reaction to them with the context of how things were when the film was made and juxtapose it with how things are in 2016. In the case of Arcade, it is now a very interesting conversation piece as VR gaming is finally being released to a mass market at reasonable prices. Whereas the idea that VR devices could be distributed for home use was not technically feasible in 1993, in 2016 it very much is.
What is Arcade? Arcade is a film about a brand new virtual reality video game titled “Arcade” that is being test marketed by Vertigo Tronics at both a local video game arcade as well as a home console to a limited number of teenagers. The game places players in a virtual world filled with danger, adventure and a quest to make it through all the various stages and defeat the boss at the end. The only catch, if you lose “Arcade” claims your soul and your body disappears along with it! When Alex’s boyfriend gets swallowed up by “Arcade”, she vows to do whatever it takes to save him and anyone else who has been trapped in the game. Created by Charles Band (the creator of Full Moon Features), written by David S. Goyer (writer of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) and directed by Albert Pyun (director of The Sword and the Sorcerer, and Cyborg), the film stars Megan Ward (Trancers II & III), Peter Billingsley (Ralphie from A Christmas Story), Seth Green (Co-Creator of Robot Chicken), and John de Lancie (Q from Star Trek). Also of note, the film was edited by Robert Meyer Burnett, who directed Free Enterprise, an excellent movie I reviewed last year as one of the best movies that you’ve never heard of.
What I Liked About It: First and foremost – I love that it features a strong female protagonist, that is neither helpless nor dependent upon her womanly wiles to accomplish her goals or win support from her peers. Megan Ward portrays Alex, an intelligent, considerate character that also happens to be exceptionally driven and capable. For a movie about video games made in the 90s, it is refreshing to see a female leading the charge in the VR mask. I wonder if the team over at Feminist Frequency knows about this flick? It even passes the Bechdel test (link included just in case you don’t know what that means). Pretty progressive move on the part of Full Moon Features.
The known quantity actors were also highly entertaining as well. Seth Green plays Stilts, an affable teenage slacker that likes to talk a whole lot of smack. Peter Billingsley portrays Nick, best friend of Alex’s missing boyfriend Greg, a total gamer who supports Alex in her quest to try and defeat the game. John de Lancie makes an appearance as Difford, a smarmy representative for Vertigo Tronics who is responsible for getting all the teens hooked on the new VR game “Arcade.”
“Arcade” is an interesting character itself, as it represents a human being who has brain waves have been transferred into game code. Essentially, “Arcade” is alive, an unshackled A.I. that is looking to claim more souls, experience, and power. He is worthy villain that is cunning and filled with whimsical ideas of skulduggery. He claims souls left and right and has absolutely no remorse. “Arcade” is the text book definition of a proper villain.
I was also quite fond of the third act. I try to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible, as I would like the reader to see the film and make their own conclusions, so I won’t spell out what happens at the end, but suffice it to say I felt that it was the strongest act of the film. It had hints of ideas and concepts that would later be explored in shows like Tron Legacy, Inception, and Sword Art Online 20 years later. Also, at the end there was a nice little twist that left the door open for another story. All in all, it was a neatly told and boldly creative final act.
What I Didn’t Like: Certain aspects of my criticism are based purely on how the budget of the film was spent, whereas others are levied more towards the quality of the acting and some overall production choices. So let’s list them off:
- Typical b-movie supporting cast woes, replete with performances that feel as if they were reading a teleprompter. I know bad acting is part of the charm of watching cheesy movies, but when you have Megan Ward, Peter Billingsley, Seth Green and John de Lancie running around, it’s better for the rest of the cast to put in a higher quality performance.
- The various game worlds are not evenly balanced. A lot of time is spent on the first floor, a medieval style torture maze, whereas the other levels hardly get much screen time at all. Also, the game world is represented entirely as CG, which is fine, but a lot of the backgrounds are very static, even when there appears to be moving characters in sight. Robots stand in place with legs lifted, things like that. It’s a minor gripe, but it takes you out of the experience.
- Some of the Establishing shots go on for far too long. One shot has Alex drive up the driveway to her home, park the car, get out of the car, collect her things from the car, shut the door to the car, walk around the car, up the pathway, up the stairs to her porch, in through the front door of the house, and then finally closing the door behind her. I get it. She’s home now. It doesn’t take a shot that long to establish this. There are numerous times that this type of shot happens. I assume it was a technique designed to extend the length of the film, but ultimately I would have preferred the movie was a few minutes shorter instead of these awkwardly long shots.
Bottom Line: Arcade is a forward thinking movie that was ahead of it’s time. Like the Lawnmower Man (which came out around the same time) it was a high concept idea that embraced a technology that wouldn’t be available for purchase to mass market until 2016. As such, it serves as a type of bizarre b-movie time capsule of what VR technology could have been like had it been ready for market in 1993. It is an enjoyable film with characters that are charmingly portrayed by the main cast. The story is fresh for its time, and the payoff at the end is well done. Its production values have not stood the test of time, and there is some dubious acting to be muddled through, but neither is a deal-breaker. You have to assume when watching low budget films, that there are going to be peaks and valleys in the quality. Fortunately, the peaks outshine the valleys, and ultimately the film is worth watching purely for experiencing a post-puberty Ralphie from A Christmas Story dropping multiple F-bombs throughout the flick. You can purchase Arcade on DVD or watch it through Full Moon’s Streaming service.
Check out the trailer below and see if you think Arcade is in your VR wheelhouse: