Somewhere between the film versions of Mortal Kombat and Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Hollywood should have come to a realization: Video games make lousy movies.
Maybe it's the drawn-out, weakly written plots, or it could be the over-reliance on breakneck, hard-to-follow action. That's because video games, by their very nature, focus more on play mechanics than plot. They are interactive experiences, unlike the passive medium of cinema.
So it looks like Edgar Wright's new Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has decided to try making a movie into a video game, just to see if that works.
Adapted from Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-volume graphic novel, the tale of a 22-year-old (played by 22-year-old Michael Cera) forced to do battle with a prospective girlfriend's "seven evil exes" in order to secure her love had not previously been made into a video game — an 8-bit-style, anime-ish adaptation was released on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network on Tuesday — but the logic and ground rules of gaming form the bones of the story. And while the idea of Scott being forced into Street Fighter-style death matches with the cast-offs of his beloved Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is absurd at best, there's something to be said about a movie that in many ways defines the generation it targets.
You see, Wright has made a movie using conventions that shore up modern pop culture. He's practiced this before, with zombie movies the focus in Shaun of the Dead and cop movies in Hot Fuzz. This time, it's the nods at the conventions of gaming that form the core of the movie.
Older film critics are skewering Scott Pilgrim for being creative, but not all that good or easy to follow (the film's Metacritic score is hovering in the mid-50s). But the target audience — people who grew up addicted to and overwhelmed by a junk culture of comic books, sitcoms and, yes, video games — will likely slip into the story like it was an old pair of shoes.
"We're at a point in history where several generations have nostalgia touchstones for video games they grew up with," co-screenwriter Michael Bacall told the Kansas City Star. "We tried to touch on every era of the gaming culture, which at this point a lot of people can identify with."
It's telling that a comic book adaptation is getting the bulk of its notoriety from its similarities to digital entertainment. Back in 1982, when Disney's TRON was released, video arcades and home consoles were new enough that anybody past legal drinking age shrugged and yawned, ignoring all the movie's cultural prophecies. Two years later, The Last Starfighter, which centered on a teenager becoming an intergalactic fighter pilot by defeating a video game, was the first full-length feature to solely use computer animation for its space battles.
These days, the big movie news is the sequel TRON Legacy and a remake of Starfighter, neither of which were based on a game themselves. Now that sounds like a familiar formula.
In many ways, movies created video games, with loose narratives and action sequences forming the core of most software since the days of the Atari 2600. Now that creative circle is closing — Scott Pilgrim is the hero, Ramona Flowers the princess and the evil exes the stages of the game. Meanwhile, new games like Heavy Rain and Alan Wake truly are turning narratives into interactive entertainment, with intricate plots and near-lifelike graphics so seamlessly blended, players feels as if they are a part of the story. Somewhere, sometime, the twain shall meet.
For every gray-faced film critic who denounces gaming as a waste of time, there are millions of real people who see it as part of the fabric of their upbringing. That's wholly illustrated by Wright's vision of Scott Pilgrim.
"Twentysomethings and under will swiftly embrace this original romancer, which treats (young love) as if there were nothing more important in all the universe, though anyone over 25 is likely to find director Edgar Wright's adaptation of the cult graphic novel exhausting, like playing chaperone at a party full of oversexed college kids," Variety's Peter Debruge warns. And he liked the movie.
But like cell phones, talkies and automatic transmissions, gaming as an entertainment medium is gaining acceptance among audiences. It is no longer an element of the vocabulary; it has turned into the vernacular itself.
If you're older than 35, give or take, you'll have to deal with it — or just be as mystified as everyone else.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.