It's August 10, and on this day in 1984, director Richard Franklin's video game thriller Cloak & Dagger made its theatrical debut.
Video games and movies have shared a complicated relationship for almost as long as the younger medium as existed, beginning with 1973's Soylent Green, where the groovy fiberglass cabinet of Nutting Associates' Computer Space provided a "futuristic" sci-fi diversion. It hasn't always been a good relationship, admittedly; video game adaptations of movies are almost always just as terrible as film adaptations of games. As I write this article, a dozen columnists are gleefully excoriating Adam Sandlers' Pixels as proof of... well, basically, of whatever they choose to see in the Rorschach test of the movie's disastrous (and fully merited) box office returns. The point is, movies and games don't get along terribly well.
That makes the good ones all the more remarkable — the times when Hollywood gets games right, despite itself.
Cloak & Dagger, which appeared in theaters across America 31 years ago today, was one of the good ones. I didn't think so at the time; when I heard it was a movie about video games, I expected something like Disney's Tron: A fanciful sci-fi tale wearing its Star Wars influences on its sleeve. But while Cloak & Dagger certainly has a fantastic element, the production ultimately is far more grounded in mundane reality than Tron... oh, and video games are a plot point, but not the point.
Rather than play out as a grand sci-fi saga, Cloak & Dagger instead belongs to that decidedly '80s genre of kid-oriented Hollywood flick that JJ Abrams tried to recapture in Super 8. Heck, it makes its intentions clear from the casting alone: The protagonist is played by non other than Henry Thomas, aka Elliott from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the god-emperor of this particular style of film. (It might seem strange to pair Thomas with director Richard Franklin, whose previous credit to Cloak & Dagger was Psycho II... but Thomas ended up playing young Normal Bates in Psycho IV, so maybe not.) These films often stray from the finite bounds of pure realism, but they never go all-in on special effects and fantasy.
In the case of Cloak & Dagger, the fantasy element comes in the form of Dabney Coleman's Jack Flack, a super-spy who looks remarkably like the father of Thomas' character, protagonist Davey Osborne. The resemblance is no coincidence; Flack is actually an invention of Osborne's fertile imagination, a child's view of his own father as a larger-than-life figure. What's not fantasy, at least by the film's rules, is the spy caper young Osborne finds himself embroiled in: When he witnesses a man being murdered, he becomes caught up in a hunt for classified military documents — your classic Cold War potboiler, basically.
This, of course, is where the video game element comes into play: Osborne is given a copy of an Atari 5200 game called "Cloak & Dagger," which supposedly contains secret documents. Osborne briefly plays the game in an attempt to find the secrets, but in the end it turns out the data isn't in the game code but literally inside the game, hidden within the cartridge. (Or rather, the "game tape" — when people make fun of that particular gaming malapropism, they're mocking Cloak & Dagger.) Interestingly, the game in question never actually existed; Cloak & Dagger made its way to arcades — a repurposing of an in-development game called Agent X — but the 5200 port was scrapped when the U.S. console market collapsed, right around the time of the film's production.
While video games acted as a sort of MacGuffin in Cloak & Dagger, they weren't really the point of the movie. The real story had to do with the young protagonist's triumph over adversity and his willingness to abandon his daydreams and escapist fantasies... so, really, basically the exact opposite of video games. And in the end, aside from visions of Jack Flash, Cloak & Dagger turned out not to be that farfetched — a couple of decades later, the PlayStation 2 garnered headlines for its potential military applications. Still, it turned out to be a pretty decent movie in that '80s kid-thriller vein, and that makes it better than about the vast majority of Hollywood's pitiful attempts to embrace video games through the years.