“I never believed in Heaven, but I learned to believe in Hell, when mom sent me there.” That is the first line of the 1993 sci-fi horror movie Arcade as spoken by the lead protagonist, a teenager girl who had her life turned upside when her mother committed suicide and her father sank into a crippling depression. One must admit that this is a pretty dark opening in what seemed to be a film marketed as Tron meets Nightmare on Elm Street, but with schlock director Albert Pyun at the helm, and a script by David S. Goyer based on an idea by Full Moon producer Charles Band, you know you’re probably in trouble no matter what direction the film decides to go in.
Alex Manning (Megan Ward) is a troubled suburban teenager doing her best to get through life after her mother committed suicide a year ago, neither her school counselor nor her couch-bound dad are any help as things seem to spiral into the abyss, but when Alex and her friends attend a test marketing demo for a new virtual reality game called “Arcade” her slipping grades become the least of her worries. At local video arcade Dante’s Inferno CEO Difford (John de Lancie) unveils a startling new revolution in video gaming, a system that he claims, “It’s so real, you’ll actually think that you’re in the game world!” This impresses video game whiz kid Nick (Peter Billingsley), and he does fairly well when he gets a shot at the game, but when Alex’s boyfriend Greg (Bryan Dattilo) tries it out and loses he finds himself sucked into the game world. And the danger is very real…just not all that convincing.
Unfortunately for poor Greg nobody noticed his “losing” the game and vanishing into the ether as everyone had been escorted out of the demo room to receive their own free home versions of the game. Now I’m not sure what kind of game company can just hand out free virtual reality consoles to a group of random consumers but I’m betting it’s not one that will be in business very long, then add to the fact that the company used brain cells from an abused child in the manufacturing of the game’s A.I. (which were donated by the mother who beat the kid to death) you know things are not going to go well. And why exactly did this company use an abused kids brain for their game’s matrix? Well apparently it was done to make the whole thing more challenging, and that makes all kinds of sense. Even if this idea worked does that seem to be sustainable business model?
When Alex tries the game at home things go a bit weird, it gloats about eating her boyfriend and calls her a bitch, but of course when she goes to good ole Nick for help he isn’t easily convinced that the game is alive and only believes her once he sees for himself Arcade sucking their friend Laurie (A.J. Langer) into the virtual world. The two come to the quick conclusion that the only way to save their friends is to beat Arcade at his own game and the best way to do that would be to visit Vertigo/Tronics to find out from the game’s programmer Albert (Norbert Weisser) if there were any secrets built into it that would allow them to win. Finding a possible backdoor or cheat codes doesn’t seem to be too bad an idea but unfortunately Albert isn’t all quite there, he’s the standard eccentric computer geek found in countless movies, but he does give them schematics to the game and where to find the keys that will unlock the doors to each level. Armed with this knowledge our two heroes return to Dante’s Inferno to face-off against the killer A.I. and hopefully free their friends. Nick is all set for a solo mission but Alex insists that they go “Two Player” on this rescue mission, and somehow this is possible even though the system clearly has only one set of virtual reality gloves and one headset.
Will our two heroes survive in the topsy-turvy world of Arcade? Are there friends doomed to live an eternity inside a video game hell? Is that Seth Green playing their goofy friend Stilts? To say that this film fails to deliver on any aspect of its premise would be a gross understatement, and it’s production was certainly not helped by being sued by Disney for ripping off imagery from Tron which forced them to redo much of the film’s already crappy CGI, but even if this film had been given a forty million dollar budget it would still have been stuck with a terrible David S. Goyer script. The budget it did get made the overall film’s production seems on par with an average episode of Goosebumps with only the occasional “F” bomb separating it from what you’d see on Saturday morning programming. The film also wasn’t happy with just trying to rip-off Disney as it lifts the “Riddle Guards” scene from Labyrinth when Alex encounters virtual reality version of her friends Laurie and Stilts who have been turned into a couple of Grim Reaper looking guards. When Alex confronts them they state, “You may ask one of us a question, one tells the truth the other lies. Who you ask remains your discretion, but if the answer is wrong the questioner dies.” Now I know Jim Henson and company didn’t invent this particular riddle game but it’s clear that’s where the makers of this movie lifted the idea from, and what is truly hilarious is that David S. Goyer apparently didn’t even understand how this particular riddle works as he has Stilts inform Alex, “I am the liar, where shall I take you” so all Alex has to do is ask him which boat to take because she now knows he is the liar and then would obviously take the opposite of what he answers.
The only actual chilling moment in this movie is when Alex wakes up in her bedroom to find her mother alive and that all that “Arcade” business seeming just a bad dream, this of course also happened in Labyrinth but it takes a real dark turn here when Alex says to her mother, “I dreamt you were dead” and her mom creepily responds, “Sweetheart, I am dead” and then she pulls out a gun and blows her own brains out, then poor Alex gets even more traumatized when dead mom lifts up the gun again and offers to take Alex to the afterlife with her. That is some crazy shit and if the rest of the movie had one tenth of this level of horror we might have had a film worth recommending. The CGI graphics are laughable bad, even for something from the 90s, and the stinger ending that threatened us with a potential sequel was pretty much doomed to never happen, but if you want to see Ralphie from A Christmas Story and Oz from Buffy the Vampire Slayer team-up in a movie then this is your one stop shopping place, otherwise give this movie a big pass.