I’m keenly interested in the evolution of video game graphics. When they were first introduced to the public, they were as basic as basic could get. Everything was a square, and the squares were made up of squares (“pixels,” for all you squares). There was no such thing as a round object. The “ball” in Pong is a small square which behaves with only the rudimentary physics that an actual ball would have. Early graphics were the merest suggestions of shapes in reality. Yet, they were effective in the same way as the graphic design work of someone like Saul Bass, just more regimented by the strictures of the medium. Nonetheless, there is a reason why we revere the poster for Vertigo but not the graphics from Atari’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial game. That difference is in the discipline.
As I stated, video game graphics were limited by grid like template for everything. Mr. Bass, by contrast, used the simplicity of shape, but his work still looked handmade. The objects were not perfectly-formed, and this is why we scoff (well, I do) at the idea of art produced by a computer. Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about art produced on a computer, I’m talking about work produced with little to no input from a human element. There is a wild difference between painting a metallic sphere and rendering a metallic sphere by asking a computer to do it. Despite all of this, I personally would rather play the first Mega Man game than many of the more immersive games of today. I’m not certain if it has anything to do with my love of simplicity or my dislike of the modern world. Perhaps it’s because sometimes I revel in being contradictory. Perhaps it’s because I can’t stand being contradictory. I am large, I contain multitudes (thanks and apologies to Walt Whitman).
Alex (Megan Ward) is tortured by the constant specter of her mother’s (Sharon Farrell) suicide and the stress of having to take care of her traumatized father (Todd Starks). Wandering over to the local arcade (ominously dubbed Dante’s Inferno), Alex and her pals are invited by one Mr. Difford (John de Lancie)to play the latest, greatest console, titled Arcade. After Nick (Peter Billingsley) gives it a quick spin as well as his enthusiastic seal of approval, Alex’s beau Greg (Bryan Dattilo) gets behind the controls while everyone conveniently leaves the room. Of course, Greg is pulled into the world of the game, while Difford bestows every kid in the joint with a home version of the game to test and evaluate. But that clever, clever Alex knows there’s something rotten in Los Angeles (and thank you Coen Brothers for engraining in me the habit of pronouncing that city’s name with a hard “g”), and she sets about getting to the bottom of it all.
Thus do we come to Arcade (aka Cyber World), Albert Pyun’s direct-to-video attempt to cash-in on the public’s growing fascination with more immersive video game environments. Despite the talent at work on the film (including one of David S. Goyer’s early writing assignments), it sadly reeks of everything about the Nineties, and nary a one of the few good things. The characters are drawn straight out of an Aaron Spelling primetime melodrama; the cool couple, the cool sidekick, the weirdos, the “that guy,” etcetera. They are also painfully undeveloped, with characterizations so thin they only have one side (thank you, Red Skelton). Interestingly, the only two who are given any sort of depth are women. Alex is a tragic case, written as being haunted by the guilt of her mother’s death, but aside from when it comes up as a cheap way to generate drama, this aspect lays there like a dead fish. Laurie (played by the ever-adorable A.J. Langer) feels unwanted and unattractive among her friends, and she probably harbors not a small amount of jealousy toward Alex. But again, this is essentially blurted out in one scene and then forgotten. Rather than relying on the conflict between characters to generate tension, Pyun and company relegate all of the heavy lifting of the film to the video game scenes (but we’re coming to that). Possibly worst of all, the midtempo, corporate rock soundtrack conjures memories of dreck like Collective Soul or Everclear (or just throw a friggin’ dart, and you’ll hit some shitty Nineties frat rock band; I don’t care). The more I dwell on it, the more I realize exactly why I spent so much of that time period getting drunk.
Let’s discuss computer-generated graphics/effects. As the state of the practice is, it still is not entirely convincing, to me. Let me be more specific. On rigid or inorganic objects, they can work very well, so long as the lighting is matched moderately closely to the live plates (if any are used), and they are a godsend, I’m sure, for compositing elements together. On living things, however, they simply just don’t cut it. But we’re not here to get into a huge discussion on the uncanny valley as it pertains to virtual actors. That said, my theory (and I’m sure it’s yours, too) is that CG characters move too perfectly. There is an element of chaos in natural movement (sometimes all but indiscernible, but it’s there, and the naked eye recognizes it) which cannot (at this time, anyhow) be programmed by a computer. Computers work on a basis of ones and zeroes, and that’s great for precision and number crunching, but living things are imprecise by their very nature. Even if a computer artist can detail every individual pore on a virtual character’s skin, every hair on their body, their behavior will always be dictated by two states of being; essentially, “yes” or “no.” Thus, these characters are little more than glorified versions of Jerry the Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (and let me just say, that sequence was better executed than a lot of CG work I’ve witnessed).
Bearing all of this in mind, the early Nineties were a time when everyone was eager to experiment with and play in the digital effects playground, and the filmmakers or Arcade were no different. However, for as smooth as a surface could be made to look, everything in the video game world of the film is still very basic objects put together in very traditionally ordered ways. The amount of space and time needed to render graphics also limits the variety of the labyrinth’s corridors. Ergo, we are treated to the same three or four shots of dungeon walls edited slightly differently over and over. And, of course, none of the live characters fit into the video game world in a believable fashion.
To be fair, the filmmakers do start off with some interesting (if not entirely original) ideas. There is the idea of video game addiction (and addiction in general), which could have been investigated, and it would have been just as prescient today (if not more so). There is the idea of Hell, and the journey depicted through it in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (though he had nine circles, and the video game only has seven). There is the idea of control, our craving for it in our lives, and the false sense of it imparted by immersion in video games. There is the idea of being tempted by our heart’s desires and being doomed by our giving in to them. This is some compelling material when utilized properly, and there is a lot that could have been done with it. But Pyun seems solely interested in giving the audience the spectacle of the then-newfangled computer graphics, and they just don’t cut it (then and now). That he plays to the level of his production’s limitations rather than around them is somewhat baffling to me. But what do I know? I’d rather play Xevious than Grand Theft Auto any day of the week.
MVT: Despite my despising just about everything from the Nineties, they were a part of my youth. There’s a sense of nostalgia I have, then, about things from that era (even when I hate them), and this film is no exception. In flinging every Nineties cliché onscreen, the filmmakers actually do a decent job of capturing the time when the film was made. Don’t that beat all?
Make Or Break: The Break is the ineluctable “twist” ending, which succeeds in being not only utterly predictable and telegraphed from the film’s first frames but also in being flat out dumb. Go ahead, watch Arcade if you don’t believe me.