Arcade (1993) — Virtual reality is the wave of the future, yo!

“Games like Arcade go beyond interaction. I’m telling you, man, virtual reality is the way of the future!”

Justin’s rating: So the high score on this thing is… 3?

Justin’s review: It’s pretty amusing to me to consider just how long scifi culture has been predicting virtual reality as the next big thing. We had TRON and Star Trek’s holodeck in the ’80s, Lawnmower Man and The Matrix in the ’90s, and plenty more besides. So many virtual reality projects litter the past four decades — anyone remember Nintendo’s Virtual Boy from the mid-90s? — and even now in the 2020s, the current attempt has only produced dorky, expensive headsets that are still on the fringe.

Actual reality wasn’t going to stop Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures from capturing a nice slice of that VR pie, however. In the movie Arcade, these teens go to an arcade where they play a video game called Arcade which is secretly controlled by a sentient A.I. known as Arcade. Can you believe that this was written by Batman Begins screenwriter David S. Goyer? The words are just flowing off the page, here!

So Alex (PCU’s Megan Ward) is a somewhat troubled teen who finds her mental health improved not at all when her whole group is exposed to a addictive — and perhaps homicidal — new video game full of the best CGI that the early 1990s had to offer. This particular program seems to know too much about them and, oh yeah, teleports the losers into its confines forever after driving them crazy.

Pretty much overnight, Alex’s group of friends have gone missing after testing out Arcade, leaving just her, Nick (A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsley) and Stilts (Seth Green) to figure out how the game really works and head back in to rescue all of those lost in its confines.

Arcade skates on a thin line between being cult good and horrible cable TV trash. One minute I’m bored by the slow pacing and the rather dull camerawork, and the next I’m delighting in Ralphie bashing in a TV screen to keep an evil A.I. from messing up a living room. There’s a really cool idea here with a sentient video game powered, of course, by the brain cells of a murdered kid, and the VR devices actually look pretty well-done for the era.

I also can’t get over the big names for a cheesy Full Moon flick. In addition to the aforementioned, Star Trek’s John Delancie is also in this as an oily executive for the studio that makes the game. He’s effortlessly watchable, but alas is only in a few scenes.

Too much of Arcade spends spinning its wheels of the mystery of the game before Nick and Alex finally head in to beat it. We’ll assume that budgetary limitations is the answer here, and it’s not like the computer graphics that we do get were ever going to wow people (the characters are weirdly fascinated by fractals). Still, this movie has an eerie tone tone and a subtext of a girl working through a personal tragedy that works well for it — sometimes even overcoming the wooden acting and cheesy lines.

It’s unfortunate that Arcade’s greatest legacy was almost getting sued by Disney (for ripping off some TRON designs) and being delayed for many years before finally coming out. It’s probably one of the better Full Moon flicks I’ve seen — low praise, but there it is — and a dang sight better than eXistenZ.

Didja notice?

  • Opening credit gyroscope… OF THE FUTURE
  • This is the darkest lit therapy room I’ve ever see in a movie
  • An interactive video game? You don’t say!
  • Hey, don’t diss Space Invaders
  • Virtual skateboarding!
  • Alarm clock phones! I remember these!
  • So to play Arcade, you wear “cybergloves” but you also hold an Atari joystick?
  • Computer programs can physically stop you from unplugging a TV
  • The gripping drama of watching a guy calling friends on a phone while being minorly annoyed
  • These are the worst helmets ever
  • Seth Green’s zombie makeup

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