Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Rise of the Videogame Aesthetic in Cinema

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Serenity (2019).

This piece contains spoilers for Serenity and Aquaman.

When critics first saw Serenity (2019) they lost their minds. Charles Bramesco of The Guardian calls it a “zeppelin crash of a film”; and it broke Adam Woodward of Little White Lies, who wrote a conceptual review that sees it as a career rest stop for lead Matthew McConaughey. Everyone seems to agree that the acting is clichéd, the dialogue stilted, the style overwrought to the point of camp, and the camerawork just plain weird.

But as a counterpoint, I submit for your consideration the idea that writer-director Steven Knight is not introducing us to a guy named Baker Dill (McConaughey) who, asked by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) to kill her abusive current husband Frank (Jason Clarke), suddenly discovers that – spoiler! – he’s a character in a video game. Knight presents us with a video-game world called Plymouth Island whose player-avatar, Baker Dill, discovers the central game plot among the various mini-games.

The difference is subtle but important. If you viewed the movie as the former you invite a traditional critique, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls it “a high-level goof, a collection of clichés assembled as a meta-movie.” But view it first and foremost from the perspective of a video-game aesthetic and Serenity starts to make sense.

A few words on what I mean by video-game aesthetic. First off, I’m not talking about video-game adaptations, such as those ranked by Phil Owen and Phil Hornshaw, or films that merely take place in a video game, like Ready Player One (2018) (which I think is an intentional mess), because the expectation there is that the style change with the medium, that video-game grammar to become film grammar. I’m talking about video-game grammar in a film.

As a medium comprising other media, movies have a history of emulating the styles of different media, from the still photography of La Jetée (1962) to more recent instances like the textuality of Prospero’s Books (1991) and the cartoon zaniness of Speed Racer (2008). With the spreading popularity of video games, it should surprise no one that film has started to display video-game elements – think of the deliberately styled Pixels (2015), or the fights and coins of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010).

The video-game aesthetic only started making an organic appearance in Aquaman (2018), which is plotted, structured, and shot like a video game. That’s why it’s so funky when you try to think about it using traditional film grammar. But as a series of long video-game-cut scenes with the boring grind left out, it’s a magnificent achievement.

The pre-title sequence already hints at this. Unlike the opening sequence of Up (2009), for instance, this backstory affects us not through suggestive montage and variations on a musical theme, but rather through its archetypal fairy-tale logic, a backstory lightly sketched so that we aren’t too immersed to follow the story proper.

The same analysis applies to the depiction of King Atlan’s (Graham McTavish) self-imposed exile: the scene makes it look like he picked any old spot, when in fact it’s at the very end of Arthur/Aquaman’s (Jason Momoa) journey in this impossible place, where he maintains the exact same posture like the non-playable character he is. And speaking of locations, the fact that the locales are announced via subtitle, often before the characters themselves know where they are, evokes the levels and stages of an adventure game. Because that’s what Aquaman is.

Jason Momoa in Aquaman (2018).

Then we get the first fight scene, a small hint of things to come. Aquaman goes in the opposite direction of quick cuts; rather than focusing on points of contact and leaving the overall flow of the scene to be worked out by the viewer, director James Wan makes sure we always see what’s going on while still keeping the camera moving (even the overhead shot is spinning), making good use of deep focus. The rooftop parallel-fight scene does this and more, connecting the two fights with pulls and zooms, an idea first pioneered by the Wachowskis in Speed Racer, which was truly ahead of its time.

The fight between Arthur and Orm (Patrick Wilson) evokes a specific video game: the Super Smash Bros. titles (1999-). With a basically unbounded arena and the full use of all three dimensions, the only way one of them could lose is by becoming so exhausted (high damage percentage) that they can’t stop themselves from being hurled into the lava river (KO’d). By the way, look at Patrick Wilson, who never leaves the ocean and is thus mostly CGI, and tell me that his hair and eyes don’t make him appear like a Final Fantasy (1987-) villain. In fact, the only sequence in the film that emanates filmic naturalism is the introductory scene of David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his father Jesse (Michael Beach), which is probably why it and the whole Black Manta plotline don’t fit very well with the rest of the film.

If Aquaman is an adventure game, then Serenity is a collection of mini-games that comprise the prologue to a role-playing game, much like the beginnings of Kingdom Hearts (2002) and Kingdom Hearts II (2005; confusingly it’s not a direct sequel) – the comparison with Kingdom Hearts is especially apt because it, too, starts off on a tropical island. The idea that Plymouth Island is full of mini-games is actually mentioned in the film by Reid Miller/The Rules (Jeremy Strong), who calls catching the giant tuna and fetching Constance’s (Diane Lane) cat two “games” that Baker Dill can choose to play. Others probably include catching swordfish, taking tourists on fishing jaunts, and bedding Constance herself (or Karen, after sex with whom Baker Dill shouts, "I win!”). The interactions with the bartender and the fishing- shop proprietor would then be interactions with non-playable characters to replenish health and supplies, respectively. Then along comes Karen to propose the game that will jump-start the plot.

We get hints throughout the film that Baker Dill lives in a game world, starting with the opening shot which, like the opening of Mulholland Drive (2001), shows us everything before we know what we’re seeing. There’s the fact that everyone always knows the latest gossip, much as, in a game, everyone already knows the latest developments – the news has to spread instantaneously, because there’s nothing to keep the player from arbitrarily talking to any non-playable character on the street. Then there’s the radio DJ who always seems to be talking directly to Baker Dill, as radio DJs tend to do in games with radio DJs. And there’s also that odd camerawork: that 180-degree arc shot that introduces Karen, and some smaller degree rotations around Baker Dill just before he jumps into the sea buck naked. These, especially, the latter, are uniform and jerky camera movements, akin to the player toggling the camera angle, a notion widely introduced in Super Mario 64 (1996).

As the player avatar, it’s fitting that McConaughey gives the only halfway naturalistic performance. The non-playable minor characters, including Baker Dill’s employee Duke (Djimon Hounsou), are predictably two-dimensional, and Strong’s delivery as a representative of the game itself is spot-on. But the one performance that seems to have flummoxed everyone is Hathaway’s. Yes, it’s over-the-top femme fatale stuff, but that’s because she, too, is a non-playable character, one with more weight due to plot mechanics yet still by nature lacking in depth. Her performance is thus amazing for being able to convey the character’s significance without giving her an ounce more subjectivity than a game would call for.

When Baker Dill gets the giant tuna to kill Frank and the game world morphs, just as it does in the two Kingdom Hearts games when the plot starts to develop, we’re briefly shown shots of the game player, Baker Dill’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), revealing Serenity to be not a meta-fictional film-within-a-film but a game-within-a-film. However, unlike Ready Player One, where the focus shifts to Wade Watts’s (Tye Sheridan) life outside the game, Serenity stays inside, suggesting how the game might proceed with Patrick as a new, playable character.

One last question remains: as a friend posed it to me after I explained my interpretation of Serenity, “Why would I want to see a video game film rather than a cinematic one?” The answer, I think, goes back to the motivation for adopting the styles of other media. The films I mentioned in the fifth paragraph could hardly be called commercial successes, and the renown they hold (if any) is solely because of the attempt itself. They are experiments, as are Aquaman and especially Serenity, and if film truly is the seventh art, then we should welcome any and all attempts to push its formal and stylistic boundaries. Film wasn’t always like it is today, and – absurd as it may sound – Serenity just might herald the future.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

No comments:

Post a Comment