Interactive Cinema

October 29, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

"The movie seems like a video game brought to life on a big screen." Question: Is that comment intended as an insult or a compliment?

Once upon a time, the answer would have been clear. Critics, myself included, used that language (or something similar) to delineate a film that is more concerned with pyrotechnics and mindless action than with story and characters. And, for many years, that would have been a fair assessment. Over time, however, video games have grown up. They have metamorphosed from Pong to Pac Man to Doom to Diablo to Civ IV and Call of Duty and God of War. Today's video games aren't your father's. Or even your older brother's.

That's not to say that the average game, whether it's for the XBOX 360, PS3, or PC platform, is a masterpiece of complex storytelling and three-dimensional characterization. But at least some are getting there. Interaction is interwoven with cinematic cut-scenes, and some games have almost as much of the latter as the former. Playing a top-of-the-line video game can be a lot like watching a blockbuster movie, except there's a sense of control. Mashing buttons and fingering a joystick can lead to different results: success, failure, death. The multiplex doesn't offer that.

I often wonder if those who summarily dismiss video games as inferior have played (or seen) some of the newer ones. With an expert at the controls, it's possible for a viewer to sit back on the couch and actually be entertained by what transpires on screen. It's not just an orgy of repetitive motion. Sure, there's some of that, but the story advances. Video games are no longer child's play, if they ever truly were. (I know plenty of adults who played Space Invaders back in the late '70s.) Adult players, more than children, have pushed for sophistication that leads to something like the R-rated international version of The Witcher.

It is a great disappointment to many video game fans that movie adaptations of their favorite titles have been colossal duds. The problem isn't difficult to pinpoint, although it varies from case to case. Some games simply don't translate to the big screen. The interactive aspect may be too important to their overall entertainment potential. Or the filmmakers don't have a genuine understanding and appreciation of the material. Or the men making video game films simply aren't good filmmakers (Uwe Boll, this means you). I'm convinced it's possible to make a compelling video game film; we simply haven't seen it yet.

The reality is that big-budget movies and video games are on a collision course. Every year, they move closer together. The games get more sophisticated and the movies seek to recapture the addictive rush that can be achieved by playing a good game. I don't ever expect there to be joysticks on the armrests in movie theaters, but who knows how far the synergy could go? Maybe the home video versions of some blockbusters will include interactive sequences that can result in branching storylines. With strong writing and solid acting, would such a development be a bad thing?

Let me be clear: I do not advocate video games overwhelming cinema. In fact, I think there are too many of these wannabes today. For the most part, I crave movies with characters and drama - stories that touch my heart and move me in some way, or that teach me something new. Having said that, however, I have no objection to the novelty of pure entertainment. I just don't want a strict diet of it. There's room for all kinds of movies, although I will admit a fear that Hollywood's obsession with big, loud "events" will crowd out the smaller films that often provide a more emotionally satisfying two hours.

My point: film critics need to understand something before using it as a punching bag. If you haven't played a video game or at least made yourself familiar with what's out there today, keep quiet about it. Something like Max Payne isn't bad because it's based on a video game; it's bad because it's poorly made. There's a big difference, yet it escapes some reviewers. Going forward, I promise never again to use the "like a video game" phrase as a negative comment. From now on, it's strictly: "The movie seems like a 1990s-style video game brought to life on a big screen." There's no mistaking what that is intended to mean.