It’s one of the laziest clichés in film criticism: to say that movies, particularly of the blockbuster sort, have become like videogames. It’s meant as a critique of what’s perceived as Hollywood’s emphasis on action and explosions, lack of interest in character development, and slavish devotion to teenage boys and their dollars. It’s also meant as a kneejerk dismissal of videogames. “How could a videogame possibly be a work of art?” and all that. The funny thing is that the reverse of that cliché has become very, very true in recent years: videogames have become like movies.
The Mass Effect trilogy became the most detailed example of cinematic sci-fi worldbuilding since Stars Trek and Wars. The Uncharted series has quickly established itself as the truest spiritual heir to the Indiana Jones movies to emerge from any medium. Red Dead Redemption considered Manifest Destiny with far greater insight than even worthy movie Westerns like True Grit and Django Unchained. But the game franchise that in some ways is the most daringly original is also the one the draws the deepest from its cinematic roots. I’m talking about BioShock. The very first BioShock installment back in 2007 was a heady pastiche of a whole array of movie influences. It also integrated film storytelling directly into the gameplay experience, rather than advance the narrative primarily through cutscene cinematics as so many games have. Now, the latest installment in the series, BioShock Infinite, has been released and it’s a turn-of-the-last-century steampunk fantasia.
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BioShock Infinite is the story of a disgraced Pinkerton agent, Booker DeWitt, who lost his faith in his line of work after participating in the Massacre at Wounded Knee. The year is 1912, and DeWitt’s been given an opportunity to pay old debts, possibly old debts from his Pinkerton days. He’s been tasked to infiltrate a massive floating city called Columbia, after the female personification of America, and rescue a woman named Elizabeth who’s been held there for 12 years against her will. He goes to a missile silo, is launched to Columbia, and begins his journey. In the floating city, he discovers that there’s a brewing conflict between its strict-constructionist Founders and the growing rebel movement, the Vox Populi, who could also be called Occupy Columbia. BioShock Infinite has wide cinematic roots, but there are seven movie influences in particular—or rather, six influences and one reference—that stand out.
The Empire Strikes Back—Ken Levine, the lead designer on BioShock Infinite and co-founder and creative director of Irrational Games, BioShock’s studio, has gone on record as saying that the Star Wars sequel’s Cloud City, the vast metropolis suspended in the sky of gas giant Bespin, was a source of inspiration for Columbia. Like Cloud City, Columbia is basically a giant floating platform upon which the cityscape itself is built. Levine has also said that the Death Star influenced the concept of Columbia because of the city’s formidable weapons systems.
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Meet Me in St. Louis & Other Turn-of-the-20th-Century Americana—Despite being a floating city, Columbia is still a floating city in 1912. So Levine drew upon films that portrayed a highly idealized view of picket-fenced American life at that time. Films like Vincente Minnelli’s immortal 1944 classic Meet Me in St. Louis, which is like a Technicolor postcard from a bygone age that never was. Or later films The Music Man and Hello, Dolly! The latter film, starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau, is by no means a stranger to sci-fi, having been WALL-E’s favorite movie. So if you combine these front-porch idylls with Cloud City, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Columbia looks like. Of course that combination also means we’ve got some pretty heavy…
…Steampunk—The retro-futurism aesthetic that imagines contemporary or future technology as powered entirely by steam. It’s the go-to mode in movies, like Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, of envisioning bygone eras as being more sophisticated than they really were. For the apex of steampunk see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which, with its airships, including one that practically could be called a floating city, left its mark on BioShock.
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The Shining & Blue Velvet—Of course, the BioShock series has always had a touch of horror cinema about it. Infinite is going for something a little bit more subtle: to mine an all-American milieu of its inherent eeriness the way that David Lynch did to Lumberton in Blue Velvet or Stanley Kubrick to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. How do you create terror in environs that are the furthest thing from terrifying? Yet another way Levine has raised the bar this time around.
The Pinkertons—The legendary private security and detection organization was a mainstay in strikebreaking and outlaw-hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and frequent Western movie villains. You'll remember their prominent appearance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the ruthless enforcers who track down Butch & Sundance’s Hole in the Wall gang.
Kinetoscopes—Rather than using traditional cutscenes to impart exposition, most of what you need to know about the world of Columbia is learned on the fly. However, crucial intel can be gleaned along the way by stopping to gaze into a kinetoscope. You know a kinetoscope, right? It’s a wooden box with a sprocket apparatus, into which you gaze through a viewfinder to look at a series of flip card images that, when turned, create the illusion of movement. It’s like a mechanical flip book, and is usually considered an early precursor of cinema itself. A kinetoscope works pretty much exactly like a motion picture, except that it’s not projected onto a screen.
Revenge of the Jedi—Okay, this last one is not an influence on the game, since it never even existed in real life. But it is an interesting allusion. After you’ve rescued and partnered with Elizabeth, she can give you the power to open rifts in the space-time continuum to travel to other times and places. One of those places is Paris. The time? 1983. The year we all know Return of the Jedi came out. Except that the movie theater marquee in Paris reads Revenge of the Jedi. That was George Lucas’ original title for his conclusion to the Original Star Wars Trilogy, until he decided that it’s not in the Jedi way to take revenge. Several posters bearing the name Revenge of the Jedi were released, however, in early 1983 before the change to Return of the Jedi was made official. Get thee to eBay to find where you can buy one online.
Do you plan on playing BioShock Infinite? And which of these cinematic influences/shout-outs is your favorite?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: 2K Games]
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A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
The romantic action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is like nothing — and if you’re a person between the age of approximately 18 to 35 everything — you’ve seen before. British director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead Hot Fuzz) adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novel is so densely laden with pop-culture references it often times feels less like a movie than a mixtape. Those who share the tastes of the film’s 31-year-old writer and 35-year-old director will find the experience to be exhilarating; those who don’t however will likely be at a loss to comprehend what all the fuss is about.
The list of ‘80s and ‘90s video game nods in Pilgrim alone is daunting: Tekken Super Mario Bros. Tetris Zelda and even retro titles like Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man are represented just to name a few. To fit all of it in Wright must practically invent a brand-new kind of filmmaking. Using techniques and iconography culled from the holy fanboy triumvirate of comic books video games and anime/manga and armed with a clearly generous effects budget he splatters the screen with a dazzling array of CGI visual aids as the action unfolds: informational pop-ups supply key details on each character as they are introduced; words like “Boom!” and “Pow!” burst forth when blows are landed during fight sequences; a “Level Up!” graphic indicating increased levels of key character attributes appears after the film’s hero triumphs in battle. Even the old Universal Studios logo has been revamped by Wright rendered in the rudimentary graphics and sound of the old 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Call it easter-egg filmmaking.
At the center of this digital maelstrom is Scott Pilgrim a 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif played by 22-year-old Canadian hipster waif Michael Cera. Unemployed and in no great rush to find work he splits his time evenly between jamming with his middling band Sex Bob-Omb (a Super Mario Bros. reference) combing thrift shops for new additions to his near-limitless collection of ironic t-shirts and pining for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a beguiling New York City emigre whose signature attribute is her constantly-changing hair color.
After a few abortive encounters Scott finally gets Ramona to reciprocate his affections. Thus begins the quest — or "campaign " as gamers call it — portion of the film as Scott soon discovers that in order to secure Ramona’s hand he must defeat each of her seven evil exes (six boys and one girl) in spontaneous death matches of decreasing novelty. (A few of them could easily have been excised without harming the narrative but that might invite the ire of comic book fans who typically demand nothing less than absolute adherence to the source text.) With a variety of found power-ups and an entirely implausible collection of fancy kung-fu moves he faces off against among others a pompous vegan straight-edge (Brandon Routh) a self-absorbed action star (Chris Evans) a spiteful lesbian (Mae Whitman) and a smarmy record producer (Jason Schwartzman).
I expect Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will polarize audiences and not just because of Wright’s distinctively dizzying directorial style. (Which I thoroughly enjoyed even though it occasionally overdoses on manufactured quirk and is a bit too proud of its cleverness.) The film glosses over Scott and Ramona’s wooing process in its rush to commence with its succession of comic-book battles which grow somewhat tedious toward the end. It’s simply assumed that Ramona would fall for our protagonist as it’s likewise assumed that we already have. But not everyone will embrace Scott’s castrati hipster affect which too often comes across as grating rather than charming. (The movie’s funniest moments come courtesy of Scott’s sassy gay roommate played by Kieran Culkin who is never without a clever barb for his lovelorn pal.) And beneath Cera’s self-effacing sheen exists an unmistakable whiff of pretentiousness that isn’t entirely justified — at least not yet. Far less debatable is the appeal of Winstead whose spunky Ramona appears every bit worth the hassle of fending off seven or more ex-lovers.
God knows what she sees in him.