Monday, March 11, 2013

Glitch in the System

Wreck-It Ralph was a second choice movie every single time I went to the theater last fall and ultimately I just ran out of time to see it first run. Which is a pity. This was a surprisingly good, heart-felt movie deserving a little more acclaim.

Quick Note: what follows is less of a review and more of an essay. SPOILERS AHEAD!

The movie's plot is simple enough. A long time video game villain, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), tires of the constant put-downs and abuse from the residents of his virtual world and tries to break out of the endless drudgery of being the 'bad guy,' in a video game. Seeking to prove himself, Ralph visits a few other video games, including Hero's Duty (a bug-blasting sci fi first person shooter along the lines of Area 51) and Sugar Rush (a racing game that looks like a cross between Mario Kart and Candy Land). During his quest, he picks up an unlikely companion, a glitchy wanna-be racer, Vanellope Von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman) who steals a metal just so she can finally compete in the big qualifying sugar race. Ralph, a character whose out-sized hands and form wreaks havoc everywhere he goes has to decide whether becoming a different person himself means keeping another in her place.

The movie has a rather convoluted and involved history; first scripted in the 1980s, during the arcade boom, the film maintains a nostalgic, nearly anachronistic tone. Seriously, the movie takes place in an arcade -- ever since Good Times closed a few years back, I couldn't even tell you where to go in the Greater Boston area to find an arcade. But, the concept works because the details work. In a wise move, the story revolves around characters and games invented for the movie but real video game 'stars' (Zangrief, Q-Bert, Pac Man, and Egg Man) constantly drop-in. A lot of reviewers called this the "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" of video games and I think that comparison works on several levels. Where Roger Rabbit borrowed the style and plots of the Film Noire movies contemporary with the hey-day of cartoons, "Wreck-It" reminded me a lot of "The Neverending Story," "Labyrinth" and "The Last Starfighter," 80's fantasy adventures relying on 'fish-out-of-water' stories. In a similar fashion, by the end of Wreck-It Ralph, we have a sense of an incredibly intricate and deep world surrounding the events of this one story.

While meant for kids, "Wreck-It Ralph" manages one more nifty trick, allowing a measure of moral ambiguity into a Disney film. In particular, the reason Ralph 'wrecks' the apartment in Niceland is that his original home, a stump, was cleared out and tossed into a dump by developers. Surprisingly little is made of this in the movie, this notion that Ralph has a fairly obvious grievance. More notice is paid to the unfairness of his 'coworkers,' that Ralph isn't even recognized or appreciated by the other characters in his game, but less is made of the overall system. The one figure who tried radical change in the system, an older racer by the name of "Turbo," becomes an by-word for villainy in the same way "Marx" is used on Fox News.

Which makes, for me, an interesting and timely metaphor for society right now. The system on display here isn't just one game but a series of interconnected disparate entertainments, each with various rules and risks. These games can't be altered (changing the game too much results in game-destroying glitches, and eventual unplugging) but the conditions of the workers within the games can be made better with understanding and measured charity. In the real world, an individual is also confronted with a baffling array of governments, corporations, and social groups with their own structures, rules that have to be learned and obeyed. Groups seeking too much change are warned about the 'job-killing' effects of minium wage hikes, health care reform, and equal pay for equal work. I'm not sure, once it's all said and done, how I feel about the movie's ending.

Can games only be gradually reformed or can a glitch sometimes create a whole new system? The movie tries to have it both ways. By the end of the film, Ralph embraces a form of incrementalism, returning to that same job, an figure of chaos to be ritually defeated and then tossed from the top of a building again and again again. Vanellope was offered unlimited power as a monarch but prefers to retain her game-breaking glitch to win race after race. While both characters contributions are more appreciated -- he even works out a system to provide housing for video game characters thrown from other games -- ultimately the movie ends on a denouement. Wreck-It Ralph begins the story hurling towards a puddle of mud and he's picking himself out of it at the end.
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