From Oblivion to Elysium, how films are embracing the language of videogames

Matt Damon in Elysium. Image credit.

‘Like a videogame’. It’s a phrase rolled out frequently in mainstream film criticism of late. It infers something lacking – that a specific motion picture is uninvolving, ineffective, isolating because we’re disempowered from interacting with it as we would if it were the game it resembles or longs to be. It also suggests something displaced: the wrong medium in the wrong place. ‘Like a videogame’ rather than ‘like a movie’.

What a relief, then, that the best cross-pollination of videogame and film we’ve had to date – yes, including Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon – arrived this year (and is still showing in the UK) and finally lays waste to that derisive phrase’s worth and relevance.

Neill Blomkamp’s science fiction epic Elysium, in which Matt Damon’s Max attempts to save his own life by reaching a man-made halo in the stars possessing the technological wizardry to cure what ails him, begins as a strong socio-political polemic (healthcare for all!) but soon surrenders itself gloriously to the audio, visual and even structural tropes of action-oriented videogames. Surprised? So was I.

The summer movie season arguably kicked off with Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (I’m still convinced there’s a decent 30-minute film tucked away somewhere inside its bloated beauty or, at the very least, a good music video). I was spurred on through Kosinski’s laborious picture for one reason alone: there’s so clearly an influence from videogames’ visual iconography in its dazzling 7K-shot aesthetic. Oblivion’s clinical habitats feel distinctly Portal, the weapons distinctly Bungie and the music, from M83, sound like the chiptunes of the future. There’s a strong videogame throughline in the director’s work, of course, from Tron: Legacy’s PvP light cycle duelling to Kosinski’s early Gears Of War and Halo commercials for Microsoft.

Another significant step in cinema’s embracing of videogame aesthetics: Oblivion.

Nonetheless I found it refreshing to see a director so overtly embracing game aesthetics. Oblivion, in some respects, really is ‘like a videogame’ but you can almost single that aspect out as a positive in a blockbuster this time around; a stylistic strength rather than a weakness. With its dazzling array of game-style tech it nearly made me proud that our industry was invading the visual canon of film culture and production, and arguably enriching it. Nearly. Oblivion was a disappointment not for its videogame slant and vibes, but for issues regarding its structure and flow as a film. This, for me, was the film’s minor revelation: we were getting warmer on the trail towards games and film actually crossing over in a more meaningful and powerful way.

The utopian cross-over between game aesthetics and ideas that Oblivion hinted at, Elysium delivered. Blomkamp’s film even goes beyond the visual, the merely stylistic, and into the realm of a more transcendental and sensorial videogame grammar. Elysium recreates not just the look of a game, but the sense of immediacy, disorientation, chaos, conflict and against-the-clock objective hunting. It takes the visual language of games, and the rhythms, the beats, of action and tension, and leverages them to the advantage of a filmic project like no film before it.

Throughout the course of Elysium’s runtime various words from the shared, general videogame lexicon popped into my head as I witnessed the death and destruction on screen. ‘Gibs’, ‘plasma shield’, ‘rail-gun’, ‘respawn’; Blomkamp’s set-pieces are steeped in the iconography and pace of the multiplayer deathmatch. From a second act that hosts a three-way chase evocative of a round of Capture The Flag (albeit in this case ‘Capture The Rich Guy’), to a final showdown that nods – in my mind, at least – to maps like Halo 2′s Elongation with its linear staging and industrial setting; Elysium is the boldest embrace yet of videogame language in the cinema. We shouldn’t be surprised, perhaps, with Blomkamp’s tangled history with the Halo series (he was attached as director of a film adaptation until the project fell through and he ultimately moved on to Elysium, but still delivered some stellar live-action adverts for Microsoft’s Halo 3 promotional run).

Elysium has all the trappings of a science fiction shooter romp.

In everything from plot points to technology, too, Elysium has all the trappings of a science fiction shooter romp – one I would love to play. It has the man-machine body horror of Quakes 2 and 4, the remote detonation devices of many a Goldeneye showdown and a rather grotesque spin on respawning that has to be seen to be believed. Oh, and let’s not forget it also has the halo of… Halo, with some tracking shots that can’t help evoke Vanquish’s train ride of bot-battling terror (looking at Elysium’s bots themselves you have to wonder if the director doesn’t have a well-worn copy of Platinum’s sci-fi classic lying about his office).

Where Elysium parts ways with other motion pictures that seemingly draw on videogame iconography and narrative elements is that it’s actually enhanced by its inheritance from the medium rather than bound or embarrassed by it. I didn’t notice many mainstream critics rolling out the damning ‘it’s like a videogame’ in discussion of Blomkamp’s film and that, I believe – I hope – is because it makes the strongest case we have to date for gaming to make a positive impression on the conception, design, production and execution of a film. It’s no longer a talking point, a distraction: games have been folded into the wider world of filmmaking as a worthy, in this case a defining, influence.

Elysium may draw on games to make its powerhouse package of thrills and aesthetics stronger, but I firmly believe that it can reciprocally offer some lessons to the videogame medium, too. For a start, Elysium aspires to something a little more than gung-ho thrills. There’s a social conscience rumbling beneath it, however faint the sound. It acknowledges, if not satisfactorily investigates, class; how often does mainstream gaming really address or allude to such issues? Grand Theft Auto may be a class-transcending fantasy where we can move outside of the rigid rules of our cities, but does it truly investigate or interrogate the issues that face those of us on the lower rung of the capitalist chain? The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay may be the last game I really felt a tangible sense of class culture explored, not the “us and them” or suits-and-soldiers occupational hierarchy, either, but of a more detrimental social system where struggle is for the less privileged and the maligned. Butcher Bay, like Elysium, also used its visuals to build on the theme as the game graduated towards the shiny upper echelons of technical and economical advantage from the sewers and dank, dark cells you cut your teeth – and throats – in.

Has Elysium made it okay for films to be influenced by videogames?

Gaming iconography may have prevailed for the better in Elysium, but there were some fellow summer blockbusters of 2013 that flagged up a more concerning influence from gaming norms to do with this very issue of class. Films like World War Z and Olympus Has Fallen reminded me that class in action genre cinema, arguably as a extension of class in gaming, is being replaced with a new norm. The ‘Everyman’ sidekick of yesteryear – the Al Powell of Die Hard, for example – is being gradually turfed out by the modern age’s archetype of the spec-ops badass. It’s hardly surprising considering the sales tsunami that was Modern Warfare that it would permeate the cinema, too, for what’s more recognisable – dare we say relatable, even – to a young gamer and movie goer now: the working class or the sniper class?

With Duncan Jones’ World Of Warcraft set to begin shooting next February, Ubisoft ramping up production on Assassin’s Creed (with a little help from the man responsible for adapting the late, great Elmore Leonard for the screen better than anyone before or since, Scott Frank), gaming franchises are set to start flooding our multiplex screens like Marvel’s superheroes. Let’s just hope the people behind the cameras, the scenes, the scripts, can use games as a force for good, rather than greed, in the way that Kosinski admirably tried and Blomkamp absolutely succeeded this year.

Elysium may be dividing critics but I hope it’s legacy is a simple one for videogame fans: that it made it okay for a film to be ‘like a videogame’, rather than denigrated by such a description.

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