People love video games, and people also love movies. So it's really no shock that when Hollywood goes looking for popular IP to turn into films, it looks at video games frequently, despite the fact that the vast majority of movies based on games are unpopular or unsuccessful, or both. However, there is a subset of the video game movie that has proven to be, generally speaking, more popular and more successful than Tomb Raider or Assassin's Creed. Those are the movies that aren't based on existing game properties, but instead take place inside games in largely original worlds. Ryan Reynolds' Free Guy is the most recent success story here.
There have been some great movies set inside the world of games. In some, video game characters come to life. In others, real people enter the world of video games and must learn to follow those rules. I'd argue nothing on this list is actually a bad movie, but only one of them can be the best.
Ok so, eXistenZ is... weird. It's a David Cronenberg movie, and that's really all you need to know to know just how weird it is. Because it's a weird Cronenberg movie, it's not the sort of thing that everybody is going to love. However, if you love weird-ass movies and you missed this one, it's worth checking out. It has Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law, and that right there is a pairing you don't want to miss. It's a movie where video games are played on biotechnology game pods that look like lumps of melted flesh. Then you jack into them like The Matrix, even though that looks like the last thing in the world a sane person would want to do.
7. Ready Player One
Ready Player One was an incredibly popular book that went hard on the 1980s nostalgia. It created an online video game that basically consumed the entire internet and turned the whole thing into a pop culture reference machine. When Steven Spielberg took on the movie, he was able to reshape the reference-fest into a surprisingly strong movie. It follows a collection of gamers as they scour the four corners of their massive online game for the clues that will solve a puzzle and give them total control of the game. The movie is the superior version of the story, and the references are great if you're into them.
6. Jumanji: The Next Level
The third Jumanji movie is the second one to use a video game structure in its plot. While it's maybe not as good as its predecessor, Jumanji: The Next Level is still a fun movie. It adds some brand new characters, which allows the video game avatar versions of those characters to do more and stretch their acting chops a bit. It also still has all the fun video game action that we've now come to expect from this franchise.
There was an era when setting a movie inside of a video game was essentially impossible. Once upon a time, games either didn't exist or were so simple that you couldn't build characters there. Arguably, this was still the case in 1982, and yet Tron was born and it worked. The grandfather of all the movies on this list, Tron see Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) transported inside a computer, where he travels among the programs, like Brice Boxleitner's Tron, in an effort to take down the Master Control Program. Tron wasn't a massive hit in its day, but it was a technical achievement that paved the way for computer-based effects, which nearly every movie relies on today.
4. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle
While the first Jumanji movie brought a board game to life, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle upgraded the premise for the digital age. It brought four characters inside a video game world with a quest to complete. Each avatar had special abilities and weaknesses that needed to be managed. All the mechanics of video games play into the story, allowing the movie to go big with the action in every conceivable way. And with a "rock" solid cast that includes Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, Welcome to the Jungle is just too much fun.
3. Tron: Legacy
Tron: Legacy was the sequel that we never thought we'd see. While the original film became a cult hit, those don't often get expensive sequels. While Legacy might not have pushed movie special effects into an entirely new world the way the original film did, it was among the early examples of digital de-aging technology (which, I'll admit, has aged poorly, but was still impressive in its day). And Tron: Legacy is honestly better than its predecessor in every other way. The action scenes are stronger, the characters feel more, well, alive, and the soundtrack is one of the all-time greats. Now if we could only get that third movie.
2. Wreck-It Ralph
There may be many movies that take place inside actual video games, but Wreck-It Ralph is one of the few that doesn't try and send a normal human inside the game somehow in order to give the audience a reason to care. Wreck-It Ralph is entirely about the characters that live inside the game, but there's no way we're not going to end up caring about them. The movie follows the titular Ralph, the pre-programmed bad guy of a classic '80s style game who is tired of playing the villain and goes looking for a way to be the hero. While the movie has plenty of the required classic game references, it's in the original characters and the original worlds that the movie truly shines.
1. Free Guy
The newest movie to be set largely inside a video game is, almost certainly, the best. Free Guy follows Guy, played by Ryan Reynolds, who is an NPC inside a video game who begins to grow and evolve on his own. It's funny and it's emotional. It has great video game-based jokes and references, but there's no requirement that you understand any of it as the story works regardless. It's not just a great video game movie, it's a great movie, period. Some of the movies on this list are funny, some have heart and some build strong video game worlds, but Free Guy does all of the above, and also includes a hilarious Chris Evans cameo.
A couple of the movies on this list have already spawned sequels, and the word is Free Guy might get one too, so we certainly haven't seen the end of movies set inside video games. In the end, every movie on this list is better than the majority of movies based on actual game titles. Someday the code will be cracked on movies based on actual game properties, but until then, we'll have these movies that show us the best parts of games and the best parts of movies together.
CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.
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