A faulty comparison

Being unemployed has led to a number of things. One of these things being that we’ve had a lot more time for movies. I tended to find that working a 9-5 meant that our TV time was devoted mostly to keeping up with the (at times too) busy regular skid of shows that I tend to maintain. But a combination of just flat out giving up on a number of shows (Heroes, Scrubs, Private Practice thank God) and the aforementioned lack of a 9-5 taking up a great deal of my week means that there’s more time spent on other media. In this case, feature films.

For a couple of years there, my interest in new movies had waned considerably. We were still catching things on AMC or Turner Classic Movies, but rarely either getting to theatres or renting new releases. Lately though, and with the recent purchase of a nice big HDTV, we’ve been renting a lot more, so we’re more up to date with the last couple years of movie releases. And one thing I’m having trouble reconciling is a particular criticism I heard about two of my recent favourites: District 9 and Speed Racer.

The criticism in this case being thus: ‘it feels like a video game’.

This accusation, I believe, relies on two assumptions, both of which are flawed.

1. That to be ‘like a video game’ is a universally applicable label, and that each video game is like the last – to be ‘like one’ is to fall into an absolute and rigid set of guidelines.
2. And, possibly more unfortunately, that it is almost always a pejorative accusation; that to be ‘like a video game’ is to be either simplistic, bombastic (without cause), violent, unthinking, crass, or perhaps worst, thoughtlessly commercial.

It was leveled at both, in varying circles to varying degrees, but District 9 to a lesser, and almost more personal extent, so I’ll start there. Let’s look at a friend of mine, we’ll call him Mr. Murray. No, that’s too obvious. We’ll say Michael. (I joke, Michael is a very, very smart man, but in this particular case, he’s wrong.)

In an earlier criticism of District 9, Michael drew comparisons from District 9 to the structure of video games, saying that:

“The narrative, such as it is, is all about problem solving– the acquisition and mastery of specific tools in order to solve problems in a shifting landscape–rather than say, the maturation of a character. You don’t learn lessons in District 9, you move from level to level.”

While it’s not my place to criticize a person’s like or dislike of a thing, I can at least look at what yang he talks about it on the internet. This criticism, I believe, misreads the character arc of the movie. Indeed, it implies there isn’t one, simply an escalating of difficulty (to couch it in video game terms). Instead, I feel he missed the entire evolution of Wikus’ character, from sniveling beneficiary of corporate nepotism to actual agent in doing good for this subjugated class of alien refugee. Sure, plenty of that was motivated by self-interest, what with the mutating and all, but that’s what made him such an interesting character. He was presented at the outset as a simpering, patronizing moron, and one who could only be generously called borderline bigoted. And yet, as he realizes both his own dire situation, and comes to sympathize with that of the aliens, the prawns, we still see he him fighting with these deep-seated character flaws and prejudices while trying to do the right thing. It’s a fascinating arc for what could have been a typical sci-fi thriller protagonist.

Also, another of Michael’s criticisms, one that is common to many of these type, was this:

“I simply could not shake the feeling that the movie was merely a trailer for the TV series/video game/sequel it was designed to precede and market…”

This ties in with many of the typical ‘like a video game’ complaints, and echoes many of the (much more common) negative reviews of Speed Racer. To imply that a movie is video-game-like is far too often meant to imply that it exists only to drive consumer interest towards an actual video game tie-in. Roger Ebert, who despite being a very good movie reviewer, we can single out for being one of the primary arguers against the whole (somewhat tiresome) ‘video games as art’ point of view, (my one sentence argument on this front: of course they’re art, but like all art, there’s a ton of garbage out there), was particularly harsh on Speed Racer. Calling it a “manufactured widget”, not worthy of theatre screen time, merely awaiting its propogation on “DVD and video games, which provide the principal justification for its manufacture in the first place.”

Speed Racer was a fun, breezy and brightly coloured joy of a kids’ movie. Perhaps overly simplified, of course, but exhilarating to watch and absolutely one of the best justifications thus far that we’ve seen for investing a bit of money in an HD home theatre system. But to say that it lowers itself to the level of a mere video game is to misunderstand what both try to do.

This is also a needlessly and unfortunately cynical view on games in comparison to movies. It implies that movies exists for a higher purpose than to put bums in theatre seats after paying their $11, where video games couldn’t possibly be out for any reason than to take your money.

I may just be a tad tender on this front. Video games are near and dear to me, and I’ve played a whole whack of great ones lately. Video games are just as, if not more capable, in some cases, of telling stories in complex, mature and thoughtful ways. To still be seeing and hearing these types of arguments made in today’s entertainment climate just strikes me as too broad and not cognizant of the leaps that have been made in gaming narrative.

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One Response to A faulty comparison

  1. Sushi Master Dynes:

    My instinct is to write either far too much, or not nearly enough, in response to your note, and so I will likely write far too not enough.

    When I made the observation that District 9 was like a video game, I have to admit, I felt very clever. However, when I applied the same observation to Avatar, I felt old, very old, like somebody who had completely missed the wave and was living in a world of black and white.

    Movies, which tend to follow trends rather than set them, have always imitated the dominant cultural medium. I suppose the first movies resembled Vaudeville sketches, and over the decades they evolved to resemble Broadway musicals, plays, novels, TV shows, music videos, comic books, and now video games. There’s nothing shocking about this, or wrong, it’s just a predictable change in a cultural delivery system.

    The Hollywood film factory is almost inconceivably commercial, and a movie is never in and of itself, the thing, but is usually just a launching point for a soundtrack, a Director’s Cut DVD, a sequel or a prequel, a ring tone, a spin-off TV show or a video game, amongst myriad other enterprises that are only accidentally connected to art.

    First and foremost, my problem with District 9 was that it actually bored me. It referred to things rather than felt them, and I felt no connection to events on the screen. I couldn’t have cared less if somebody died. This is part of the video game aesthetic, I think. Video games are not one-off events. You’re supposed to play them again and again, and the creatures that inhabit them are constantly replenished. There’s no emotional loss in video games, (although there is tremendous frustration in having hard work undone), and ultimately it seems to be more about practice, than it does about play. But I’m getting way off topic, and into an area that I really don’t know very much about.

    My prejudice when it comes to movies is for the lyrical and dreamy. I like space to wander and interpret, an opportunity for ambiguity. When it comes to movies, I’m not goal oriented. It’s all about the journey, not the destination, and in District 9 it was all fast forward all the time, and it didn’t allow the audience any opportunity to move any deeper than the surface upon which they were watching the film.

    As far as Wikus goes, I will say simply that I am in very strong disagreement with you.

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