The latest GI Joe movie, this time with the sub-heading ‘Retaliation’ (isn’t the whole genre built around retaliating?) opens with a credits sequence that brings everyone up to date so the latest Joe adventure can proceed with minimal questioning. We’re told that a few evil dudes are locked up in maximum security but then again a few other evil dudes are on the loose and the Joe’s need to capture them because only their muscle can save the world. It’s a cute little entrée to the movie that’s as dumb as it sounds, though fortunately has the good sense to not take itself too seriously, given the main character’s name is Roadblock. What is clearly evident however is director Jon M. Chu hasn’t spliced this opening together with some clever editing as influenced by gangster films of the 70s. Rather, the inspiration is drawn from that old device that sat under the television during the 90s – the Super Nintendo[i].
This whole sequence is lifted from one of those military games where you’re on a mission to kill some ultra bad dude and your Lance Corporal is radioing in to give you an update on the mission progress thus far. Think Super Star Wars, Ninja Gaiden, the Strike series ... even Super Mario Bros. With full consideration it’s not exactly a bad thing – to denounce a movie because one part feels like a dusty video game cartridge isn’t exactly fair – but when it becomes so commonplace that it is in almost every movie of the genre, it becomes tedious. Imagine a world where every action film you went to all looked the same – same camerawork, same editing, same dialogue, same directing, same locations, fucking same. Sounds awful, doesn’t it?
Is this a situation born out of a sense of competitiveness? Predator, Commando, Robocop et al of the 80s knew no comparison beyond themselves. Pong was barely a thing and the only other game on the market was a monkey throwing barrels. The 90s brought about True Lies, Terminator 2, more Rambo flicks and a couple more Die Hards. All movies that are steeped in its own history of the genre and learning from each other in how to construct, edit, direct and tell a story.
Contemplate this: at the closing of the 90s we were introduced to the ultimate in game changers, The Matrix. It is very much a film, that’s not being questioned, but for the first time CGI has dominated production (apart from the action/sci fi crossovers such as Terminator 2) as we were introduced to bullet time. Impressive at the time as it was brand new, now it operates like an A + B button mash due to the games that have copied it since. Could it be that some filmmakers feel threatened by the new generation of games (such as Bioshock Infinite, a game recognised for being one of the biggest ever made) that they need to incorporate some sense of tie-in to avoid being left out in the cold? The Matrix itself adopted this method after the immense success with the game Enter The Matrix, released same day with The Matrix Reloaded. Far from being a crappy toy used to turn product into cash, it served as a prequel to the Reloaded/Revolutions films and helped tie it all together with a whole additional hour filmed solely for the game. The general consensus for these films, in comparison to the original, speaks for itself as to how successful this videogame idea was[ii].
To note, a few recent films that play out like games - Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The race scene is practically borrowed from F-Zero X (and copied for its own racing game). In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Ethan Hunt is scaling the side of a high-rise tower in Dubai that while being a tense moment, almost feels like you should have a controller in your hands frantically tapping L1 to keep him alive. The entire 300 movie not only feels like a game but has the visual sheen of too much computer processing too.
Doom, released in 2005, is the Captain Obvious of examples. Lifted from the videogame played by every teenage boy in the 90s when they weren’t searching for their older brother’s porno, it features a horrific (read: corny) scene where the camera’s POV turns into that of the game. The gun is held out akin to its 16-bit inspiration for a three-minute kill sequence. Is this cinema or did the projector accidentally turn on his XBOX? This first-person viewpoint has of course been done before, first in Taxi Driver and later in Pulp Fiction (excluding the thousands of films that use it as a 4th wall technique) but here it’s absolutely necessary, given the namesake. No one is arguing that it isn’t dumb and cheesy but the purpose is validated. Karl Urban’s John ‘Reaper’ Grimm, the grunt that frowned at us in the game, becomes a playable character in this moment with our invisible controllers. He ducks and weaves through corridors, shooting zombie soldiers with relative ease. When a huge alien creature bursts out from a door, his gun jams (!) and there’s a few seconds before he fixes it so he can kill this beast and keep on living. Watching it in 2013 it looks like a YouTube video a pro gamer had filmed of themselves playing Doom. This was another part of the loose videogame adaptation that began in the 90s and every producer thought was a good idea because of the success of Street Fighter. Such scenes are what can be discussed as tributes to the source material, and rightly so, but as with all the previous movies, games don’t exist for these. This unnecessary influence is creeping in to a host of action titles and has been for the past decade. And that’s the problem.
Production-wise, the technique to achieve this is with rapid-fire cutting, loud Foley effects and a sweeping camera that never stops to allow the viewer to understand what exactly is going on because bro it’s action! This technique has been prevalent for the past decade or so, of course, but now the videogame influence is even more widespread. That being said, a counter argument to this, perhaps, is it’s offering a new set of skills to an otherwise stagnant genre. (Such a comment depends on your point of view.) We’ve gone from massive shootouts to gym junkies battling aliens to black belt martial arts students in starring roles to CGI ruled superhero movies. Perhaps this is just the next movement forward (or backwards?), given the sheer popularity of the superhero films of late. With all of the powers those guys have, coupled with the amount of flying most of them perform; it only makes sense for a videogame element to exist within the environment. Any sensible filmmaker isn’t going to look to the Adam West Batman or the Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk series for guidance on how to shoot this, and understandably so. That being said, if superhero flicks are expected to borrow a little from this, what about the regular, non-superhero movies?
The Expendables movies, though being admittedly ridiculous, has this feature more than ever. In GI Joe 2, when two Joe’s have scaled the mountain to collect Storm Shadow (That is his name! You can’t get more videogame than that!) they knock him out and steal his sleeping body in a bag and attempt to come back down the cliff all the while avoiding being killed by 20 ninjas that have emerged like a slumbering AI model. It moves like an XBOX game where you tap the red button to jump from one rope to another as you swing through the canyons. The argument that this is a ‘filmic’ scene seems awkward – they’re performing some of the most ridiculous stunts without a though to human error, regardless of them being ‘power’ ninjas.
Compare this heightened ridiculousness to a scene from Terminator 2, when the T-800 stands up high in the building and shoots all the cop cars with zero casualties confirmed. This is a moment of learning for the character and serves the purpose of eliminating any chance of them being captured as they escape with the chip. The tension is very much present and it is far removed from being a game. Still not happy? Compare it to Kill Bill Vol. 1, a film whose main centrepiece is a hyper-stylised and incredibly violent sword fight; a nod to kung-fu movies of old, not SNES games. Still not convinced? Across the North Pacific Ocean, Oldboy features a scene that plays out exactly like a side-scrolling videogame. What stops it from handing over the invisible controller is the story that has preceded this moment. Also, it was all done in one lengthy take, something every other film mentioned here has not done, but that’s by the by.
With that in mind, consider the flipside to this argument – the new action movies that behave as movies that attended film school and learned how to do things as per the rules of the very medium it is released in. The Raid: Redemption is the best example of this – the high-octane shootouts and fights never once get carried away into fantasy territory and are so well thought-out that one can follow everything with such relative ease the film is rightly considered a hallmark of intelligence in the genre. The new Dredd is another example. Despite the comic book history the film is very brutal and limited on the one-liners and uses a sweeping camera only when necessary. Nolan’s Batman films are steeped in film history, not PlayStation’s. Skyfall features some of the best cinematography of 2012, something you don’t get on an XBOX.
This is to not place a blanket rule over the genre either. The Spiderman films will forever play out like a videogame however there’s no way to avoid this connotation during the flying scenes. One can’t be expected to enjoy a still camera with explosions and fights occurring off-camera, Spidey flying in and out for your perusal. There are exceptions, and there’s sheer laziness.
Viewers buy tickets for an action film to see an action film. One doubts many have their fingers crossed for a series of SNES cut-scenes. That’s what gaming consoles and computers are for. This is not a call to end the habit (exceptions are necessary); rather, said filmmakers lack a sense of self-awareness that is harming their work and making for a negative viewing experience. People enjoy these kind of films and no one should prohibit them from doing this. But when these moments are present out of lazy production values that are when we need to worry. That’s when we need to take notice. Consider this final thought – imagine a world where every television show borrowed from The Sopranos. After the cheering dies down, reality would set in for even the biggest Sopranos fans. Every show would feature a family hierarchy. Every show would feature a flawed single leader of this family that would be the essence of hypocrisy and double-standards. Every single episode would concern the family and its quest for more power, hurting and killing anyone that stood in its path. All other options for characters or story arcs would be ignored because these are the new rules. Of course this would be a truly horrible thing to happen and would spell the death knell of television within a few tiresome years. Such prohibition is doing the same with action cinema right now. Superhero movies are doing so insanely well that every studio is seeking to copy just about everything from these films with a “if it can work, make it work” motto, as if they were forcing the square-peg-round-hole situation. GI Joe 2 is currently being ravaged by critics everywhere. For the sake of a cool scene over a good story, it doesn’t make sense. Studios don’t decide what makes a good film – you do. Support the Raid’s and the Dredd’s and keep intelligent action alive. The controllers need to stay at home where they belong – in front of a console.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
[i] I have used the SNES as the point of reference as it was the gaming system I grew up with, not Sega. And we all know what happened to Sega later on. Admittedly I’m out of the loop with the current gaming titles however, like everything, there’s always a starting point that everything else borrows and learns from so the SNES isn’t too far of a stretch. And if you’ve seen the movie you’ll see it is more akin to that machine (with its immense amount of cheese) than, say, Halo. Later in the article I’ll mention scenes that the SNES could not physically handle, if that makes you feel better.
[ii] This article (http://stevenpoole.net/trigger-happy/edge-125/) even goes so far to suggest that a scene in Reloaded has been diminished because they want you to play the more action-filled version in the game. I have not played the game to confirm this however this suggests something truly awful for the film.