In the wake of Transformers 2 achieving almost complete critical fallout yet still earning buckets of cash, an uncomfortable reality about action films is becoming apparent. So long as the CGI and action is entertaining, viewers are willing to dismiss a lack of proper characterization, plotting, or coherence. Where could an audience of young viewers developed such a preference for action despite suffering through a terrible plot?
After watching the second Matrix movie in theaters a friend of mine commented that the movie seemed to wish it was a video game. That got a laugh since the action sequences all take place in a virtual reality, but he persisted in the point. The incoherent plot, the wooden acting, the unnecessary fight sequences, they were all things one expects to be in a video game. Many of these motifs aren’t intentional in games, but because of their current high action nature they aren’t huge problems either. When all your audience wants to see is explosions and fighting, usually because they’re the ones doing it, you can get away with slacking in a lot of areas. You might even go so far as to argue that it helps encourage wanton destruction and mayhem if the player never really connects with the characters. Yet in a film, where we are always going to be passive observers to the thrills, action can only carry us so far. If all one is doing is watching explosions and CGI, it gets to a certain point where you wonder why you don’t just play the more enaging video game. The tension, the sense of danger, all of the things a movie must carefully orchestrate to create can easily be found in a video game. Even a bad one, really. A review for Gears of War 2 made this comment about the action blockbuster, “Hollywood, your days are numbered.”
Part of this problem is just the simple difficulty of depicting a coherent CGI world. Stanley Kubrick once said, “If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” Thanks to affordable special effects that statement is now quite literally true. Movie goers have seen dinosaurs walking across the jungle, aliens invading a major city, and anything else that can possibly be imagined. The problem is that none of this is happening in front of the actor. A Slate article on how filming for CGI affects filming points out that essentially two movies must be created. It explains, “During the live-action part, the star often works on a so-called limbo set, aptly named because the actor is in a sort of limbo stage, standing, for example, in an empty room, wearing a green spandex jumpsuit, and mouthing lines of dialogue—which will later be filled in at a looping session—[all this] while holding imaginary objects and reacting to imaginary dangers.” Afterwards a team of technicians will go in and build the rest of the movie around these scenes. Ian McKellan once described the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring as a tennis ball on a stick. Ewan McGregor commented numerous times on the difficulty of working on a set where you have nothing else to go on except green walls and the person standing next to you. The few success stories with CGI in movies work around the problem. Peter Jackson had Andy Serkis stand in as Gollum and work the other actors so they could get a feel for the character. Sam Raimi did the Spiderman films by only using CGI for action scenes. The edge that the video game can assert over film is that their entire world is CGI. The characters, the world, and the player’s avatar are all a part of one aesthetic whole. Even the moments where the depiction doesn’t make sense are at least consistent about it. If there is bad acting in a video game it is not just a blip because of awkward CGI work, it is the standard of how the world works.
Yet it’s not like anything happening on a movie set is particularly real to begin with. A column at MSN Movies UK points out, “Real filmmaking” is a slippery concept anyway, because everything on celluloid is false, from the moonlight streaming into Rick Blaine’s office to the rustle of Rocky’s boxer shorts. King Kong is a fake gorilla whether he is made of plasticene or pixels.” It goes on to point out success stories with CGI like Sin City, filmed under similar conditions to the Star Wars prequels, yet far superior. In the hands of a capable film maker with a good script, CGI is just another tool in their movie making box. The issue of game envy only comes up when a film decides to rely on its CGI action scenes instead of the medium’s other strengths. The problem being, if we are not going to be watching interesting people interact then we may as well be doing it ourselves. The Dark Knight succeeds because Heath Ledger and company deliver great performances, not because the action sequences are anything new or amazing. An elaborate ten minute fight sequence featuring crumbling buildings and kung-fu may have its tiny moments, but it is hard to not make the same observation my friend did about The Matrix sequel. They already have video games where I can smash an entire skyscraper, why would I want to watch someone else essentially play a game in front of me?
There is also the simple fact that video games have so much progress left to make. Compare a game from 2000 to today, the progress the medium has made is astounding already. Although a few gems will always come along every year in film, it’s hard to not notice that everything is becoming increasingly formulaic when it comes to film. You can set your watch to the thirty minute rule in a blockbuster. Romantic comedies almost give away their entire stories from the trailers. One CNET column cynically writes, “There is very little drive for anyone to make a unique and extremely exciting movie anymore because producers know that many of us will go out and watch the garbage no matter how bad it is. On the other hand, video game developers—largely relegated to second-class by the Hollywood-types—have something to prove.” Whereas the traditional blockbuster film is struggling to find ways to improve an overused formula, the video game could be improved on almost all fronts.
Finally, the growing trend with films trying to depict games is that an action movie has yet to improve on a video game
. Video game movies bomb for a variety of reasons: the director and actors refuse to engage with the source material or the game’s plot is threadbare anyways. Yet at a very fundamental level, the inability of a film to make an action sequence we are watching instead of inducing through play more
exciting speaks volumes. A video game’s action sequences can be longer and can occur more often because we, the player, are engaged with them instead of just watching repetitive fights. The fact that what we’re watching isn’t real doesn’t matter because knowing that doesn’t stop our engagement. The ability to get people to care about things that are not real is the bread and butter of the video game.