Every once in a while, every fan of any given pop culture staple must have wondered how they would fare if they found themselves living inside the world that they’ve loved and fantasized about for so long. How would they react if they got to meet the beloved characters that meant so much for them? Would they adjust to the tropes and standards of this extraordinary world, or perish through sheer confusion or lack of experience? It’s fun to watch a crack X-Wing pilot mow through hundreds of tie fighters with precision and grace, but if we were suddenly transported to that cockpit from the comfort of our theater seats, how many seconds could we survive before blowing up into a million pieces? Or, would we become a living god in this universe after being privy to the many plot points and clichés of this world, allowing us to predict and manipulate all of its story beats?
Such questions are obviously a lot of fun to ponder, so it’s not surprising Hollywood has produced a fair number of movies whose protagonists find themselves inside the intellectual property itself, leading to exciting adventures where their self-awareness skews the clichés of said property. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is yet another attempt at this popular premise, with a group of regular gamers finding themselves inside an obscure video game and using their established game character skills in order to survive the many creatures that, in regular video game fashion, want to tear them to pieces. Let’s hope that they have enough lives to survive, are playing in easy mode, and can perhaps find a cheat code somewhere that will enable God Mode.
The new Jumanji is a soft reboot of the 1995 Robin Williams classic that shows a group of kids unleashing an entire hostile jungle from an otherwise benign-looking board game. Its spiritual sequel (and improvement on the original), Zathura, used the same premise in a sci-fi space opera setting. Here are five other movies, in no particular order, where the protagonists find themselves interacting with their favorite visual media (movies, TV shows, video games).
1. Pleasantville, (1998)
Director: Gary Ross
Media: TV Show
Gary Ross’ underrated, beautiful, elegant, yet daring and honest fable about the growing pains of social progression begins with two siblings, David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) magically finding themselves living inside a 1950s black-and-white Father Knows Best-style sit-com, Pleasantville. David is a huge fan of the show, and can manipulate its many established tropes and clichés to figure out a way back home. Jennifer, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about Pleasantville, and is a modern ’90s girl through and through. This is where the crux of the film’s conflict lies. As Jennifer brings a more liberal understanding of sex to Pleasantville, color begins to appear all over the town, signifying the unavoidable winds of social change. It begins as a sexual revolution, but gradually morphs into the breaking of many other old and outdated social mores. As the battle between black-and-white and “colored” characters heats up, Ross finds a delightfully imaginative way to express the always-ongoing push and pull between conservative and progressive ideals. Of course he has a lot of fun skewering established cliches of such ’50s shows on the side, like married couples sleeping in separate beds, firemen only being in charge of rescuing cats out of trees, and every basketball going straight into the hoop, regardless of the player’s skill.
2. Last Action Hero (1993)
Director: John McTiernan
Not only does Last Action Hero satisfyingly adapt the “fans find themselves in their favorite franchise” premise to muscle-bound macho action flicks of the ’80s and ’90s, but it also skewers the clichés of the genre while fully exploiting those tropes a full three years before Scream took the credit for doing the same thing. Last Action Hero posits that it might be the fantastical surroundings of the hero, and not the borderline supernatural abilities of the action hero himself, that we fantasize about. Schwarzenegger’s bulging muscles, his effortless charisma, and badass one-liners help establish him as the undefeatable action hero, but without the movie universe that surrounds him, that treats every fatal bullet wound as a mere scratch and ensures every one of his shots kill the bad guys while fifty villains can’t land a single bullet on him, how untouchable is he? Last Action Hero studies this dynamic between the real world and the borderline fantasy universe set up by Hollywood from the side of the spectator and the hero. First, Arnie superfan Danny (Austin O’Brien) is magically transported into the latest episode of his favorite action franchise, Jack Slater, where he exploits the clichés of the genre in order to survive. Then, Jack, Arnie’s action avatar, finds out the hard way that the real world can definitely kill him when he leaves the theater screen and finds himself smack dab in the middle of 1993 New York City. There, he unfortunately finds out that your body hurts when you slam into cars, and that, gasp, bullets can actually kill you. On the upside, the real Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to hire you as a lookalike for mall openings and such.
3. Tron (1982)
Director: Steven Lisberger
Media: Video game
Technically, the protagonist of Tron, a hacker named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), gets sucked into a computer, and not necessarily just a video game. But let’s not kid ourselves, he doesn’t have to create spreadsheets on Lotus 123 to survive this program, and he has to play representations of some of his favorite arcade games. During the first act, Kevin is set up as not only a fan of these arcade consoles, but also the owner of an arcade where games that are similar to the ones found in Tron’s fascistic computer where it makes the anthropomorphized programs compete with each other for survival. It’s easy for Kevin to press buttons in the comfort of an arcade in order to make your avatar do extraordinary moves, but having to do those moves yourself raises the stakes considerably.
4. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Director: Woody Allen
This is the rare occasion where a character from a fan’s favorite film comes out of the screen in order to live with her in the real world, as opposed to the other way around. Woody Allen’s romanticized nostalgia trip to Depression-era Hollywood finds the downtrodden Cecilia (Mia Farrow), with an uncaring husband and a poor life she can’t run away from, escape instead into the glamorous world of Hollywood features, full of rich and sophisticated characters involved in soapy melodrama and dashing adventures. The handsome and charming hero of the film that Cecilia watches, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), gets bored of his movie life and pops out of the screen in order to get to know Cecilia and her world a little better. As Cecilia satisfies her Hollywood fantasy by living vicariously through Tom, she also learns that true strength of spirit isn’t only reserved for brave heroes in movies. Instead of deconstructing the clichés of the fiction world within his film, Allen instead gives a loving nod to the movies’ unique ability to profoundly entertain their audience while giving them a much-needed escape from their troubles.
5. Stay Tuned (1992)
Director: Peter Hyams
Media: TV, film, cartoons, talk shows, etc.
Stay Tuned doesn’t really contain the thematic studies about the various emotional and sociopolitical connections between the fan and the fictional material. Instead, it’s just a load of cheesy, goofy fun. It tells the story of TV addict couch potato Roy (John Ritter) and his soccer-mom-before-soccer-mom-was-a-thing wife, Helen (Pam Dawber), getting sucked into their brand new cable service, courtesy of the Devil himself (Jeffrey Jones). In order to go back home, the couple has to survive various parodies of established TV shows, talk shows, game shows, movies, cartoons, that are all out to kill them, thanks to a demented game that the Devil has created to amuse himself. As Helen and Roy push their wits to the limit to make it out of their TV alive, they gradually find the spark that’s been missing from their marriage for years. Who knew that almost getting your eyes poked out during a bad parody of Wayne’s World would act as the perfect marital aphrodisiac? To be honest, Stay Tuned is a stoopid film, with double o’s, but it’s a charming yet fairly demented throwback for kids of ’90s TV.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.