With four major-ish video game adaptations arriving in the cinema this year (something of a resurgence after the trend died off a half-decade ago), let us recollect our memories of two films from 2010, the inflection point of the video game adaptation as it was just entering its death throes the first time. We will eschew actual video game adaptations (they’re pretty worthless, relatively speaking) for two films that attempt to peruse the abstract idea of the video game as a jumping-off point instead.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
While most video game adaptations are manicured to within an inch of life and stripped of the tremulously unleavened visuals and aural absurdity that separates the “classic” video game (think the surrealist Super Mario or Pac-Man) from the more representational realm of cinema, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is over-flowing with a hirsute game-i-ness it exhibits no reticence about displaying on the mantelpiece. With nonsensical interludes, phonically bludgeoning inserts, and maximal visuals set to short circuit the narrative progression, Wright’s take on the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series is not only a faithful adaptation of the comic and a cinematic tour-de-force, but a reconnaissance of the “video game” as an art form far more steeped in the tempos and cadences of gaming than any video game film yet made.
Operating without a release valve, Scott Pilgrim gamely (excuse the pun) relies on the casually absurdist adventures of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) battling with new-girlfriend Ramona’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seven evil ex-partners in order so the director can untether the filmic medium from its catered, curated timidity. Instead, the film mixes and matches artistic mediums as both a hot-coal stylistic, synergistic tightrope walk and as an expression of the pliable, unstable nature of both modern relationships and the doused-in-media dialectic of everyday life. In Wright’s vision of constantly upended reality with rules being constantly rewritten before our eyes, humanity is left with no option but to climb aboard. Shifting, malleable structures overtake any sanity or fixedness, and in the nonchalant way Cera and Winstead consider the bending reality around them as a circumstantial obstruction to be dealt with rather than a puzzle to be interrogated or questioned, Wright amusingly sketches a vision of a tumultuous society where nothing is too uninhibited to actually shock anymore.
Throughout, Cera’s disaffected, self-absorbed, erratic line deliveries and Wright’s nimble mastery of self-deprecating timing delineate Cera’s Pilgrim as a circumstantial protagonist, a jerk who audiences happen to support simply because he is a white male placed in the center of a love triangle and because of the flashiness of his comedically sudden-burst gusto when engaged in battle. The jerky, stop-start nature of the fighting boldly rejects easy sympathy with Pilgrim, foregrounding the absurdity of Pilgrim’s sudden-onset powers and interrogating the audience’s assumed support for Pilgrim’s quest as a sort of inverted, bracing, deadpan riff on a John Hughes movie. The film’s continual restlessness and its refusal to stop and explore Pilgrim’s quest plays on and subtly satirizes both the ease with which video gamers will embody their blank-slate protagonists and the quickness with which film goers will cotton to romantic quests simply because they are presented in front of us without comment. Wright’s films have always bubbled with an off-handed, quietly melancholy examination of male culture trapped in arrested development. Scott Pilgrim’s jolts of self-reflective absurdity extend this exploration to the nature of how audiences empathize with (primarily white, male) protagonists simply because they are told to.
Not that Scott Pilgrim is primarily a reflective film, something its lightning-bolt visuals and blissful, spaced-out, orgiastic color-combat verifies. The speed-freak, stream-of-consciousness intrusions of pop-art eventually embody the spirit of the film’s expression of (and satire of) life as a battleground, cheekily critiquing the sense in which modern cinema so easily rests on Enlightenment notions of endless conflict and individualist quarrel. The very nature of the story, with Scott’s need to fight the seven ex-lovers treated as an assumption more than something which needs to be proved, cross-examines the weight that video games, and Western fiction more generally, place on combat and confrontation as the crux of any worthy narrative, or the necessary journey prefacing any valid destination. The gameification of everyday life – the piecemeal, parceled-out struggle and contention of romance and human longing filtered through flashy bouts of instant gratification – is the mental crux of Scott Pilgrim, and its attitude toward these flights of fancy is both ambidextrous and ambiguous.
Even taken on more superficial terms, Scott Pilgrim is nearly impossible to deny as a feat of cotton-candy cinema, dexterous and entropic in its construction and desecration of established rule sets and lightly parodic toward the very hero’s journey arc it purports to depict. Just as it is guilt-ridden about its own adolescent fixations, it also celebrates the very adolescence that allows it to recklessly upend and shoot down the rules of modern courtship and cinema. A partways fairground between summer fling and torrential downpour, Scott Pilgrim also boasts moments of disarming innocence in its insinuation of a life where this variety of conflict isn’t necessary to satiate one’s love. In its occasional bouts of depressive restfulness to combat its nearly-constant manic overdrive, it carves out a niche where it can mentally wander and linger on the lone quiet moments cherished within the hustle-and-bustle of a world where conflict and goal-questing reigns supreme.
Joseph Kosinski’s 28-years-later sequel-tribute to Tron – as of Legacy’s release in 2010, the longest gap between sequels in film history – both sacrifices the original’s trapped-in-the-’80s naivete and pays homage to its retro-tinged adventuresome spirit by carefully castrating any and all thematic weight from its orbit. This lack of depth may sound like a flaw, but Kosinksi, operating more as an interior designer than a director, cheerfully embraces the charitably adolescent screenplay by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz with a mid-century eye for high-flying, kaleidoscopic science fiction playground fantasy. Whatever ethical concerns the original film, released at the dawn of video game culture, held about the role of technology in modern life are excised for a spirited exercise in turning ignoble storytelling into a noble, if flawed, jungle-gym of over-flowing, iridescent style.
Although it lacks the cheerful post-modernism of 2010’s other video-game-culture film Scott Pilgrim, Tron: Legacy occupies an analogous ballpark of fantasia-driven episodic fleetness as it robustly runs narrative cohesion down by the side of the road and gamely bursts past logic or explication. It’s a video game film, in other words, and it peruses the aesthetic capabilities of a non-representational computer-world with more gusto than any legitimate video game adaptation thus released. Although the story is as irradiated as the visuals, Legacy pays no never mind, looking to its medium-of-worship for not only conceptual grounding but to serve as a catalyst for its narrative structural elements which whiz past exposition until we’re left with a self-consciously superficial plunge from hedonistic mission to mission. While most video game adaptations commit the fatal flaw of mistaking themselves for genuine cinema by co-opting a narrative guise, Tron: Legacy dethrones any such pretensions, relying on the episodic structure of classical video gaming as a lexicon to throw cinematic narrative by the wayside and rely almost exclusively on sensory overload as an organizing principle.
So the narrative, as it is, can’t but be a wash, following Sam (Garrett Hedlund) as he invades the world of Tron to find his long departed father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), creator of the world, while perilously jousting with Flynn’s other child, the computer-program Clu (also Bridges) who has gallantly taken Flynn’s imprisonment within Tron as an excuse to ruthlessly exert his control over the land with an iron code. Kosinski’s fixations pepper the film with dance-club throbs and angular, geometric vistas marinated in fluorescent light-ways cutting through planar darkness. As a work of world-building, Tron: Legacy is exclusively sensual, cruxing the entirety of its construction in the flow of edits, the tempo of music, and the voluptuousness of mise-en-scene until it approaches a nearly non-narrative wave of cascading aural and visual crescendos. Speaking of aural: the hoarse, effusive score by metallic maestros Daft Punk is downright unholy in its belligerent command of the celluloid, redrawing the audience’s investment away from screenplay beats and toward a more experiential symphony of entropy and bombast filtered exclusively through sensory-tinged wonder.
By any conventional definition, it’s not really a film, but as a cinematic object turned carnival, it achieves a purity found in few blockbuster films (the much lambasted cotton-candy semi-masterpiece Speed Racer, sabotaged only by its length, is the most obvious forerunner). More digital wonderland than digital halitosis, it adeptly submerges itself in CG as an avenue for drawing and redrawing aesthetic-based-worlds rather than depicting, I don’t know, dinosaurs or robots or something in the quote “real” world. With the garish, unfortunate exception of the de-aged Bridges in the film’s early, real-world segments, even the plastic sheen coating the digital Bridges as Clu ably applies digital technology as an expression of the severance between real and artifice without getting all metaphysical about it like the original.
Insofar as The Matrix (another progenitor of the video-game-levels-as-storytelling mechanism) is another much-touted comparison, Tron: Legacy’s brash, fluorescent physicality and neo-camp interludes (complete with Michael Sheen pulling out a full-on Thin White Duke) are far less pretentious and far more attuned to the essential superfluity of their raw splendor. A flaw by any other name, Tron: Legacy is the rare blockbuster that, however intermittently, turns its failures as narrative into a stepping stone for pure cinema. Other films like Mad Max Fury Road would burrow deeper into this unique crevice of pure space and sound, but Tron: Legacy, as an appetizer, isn’t half bad. It doesn’t quite rewrite the cinematic code, but at least it tries to play by its own rules.