Any number of factors might come into play in terms of how we judge a movie: pacing, choreography, acting, narrative resolution, etc. But there’s one simple test I’ve been using privately to judge movies by for quite some time now, and I thought it might be time to share it with you. If your media consumption habits are anything like mine, then time you’re watching a movie, try asking yourself this:
Would I rather be playing this movie as a video game?
If so, then it’s something of a failure of a movie, in my mind, as some other medium better capitalizes on the kind of experience it offers. Let me offer a couple of examples of movies which passed and failed this test.
Enemy at the Gates (FAIL). Jude Law is a sniper who is going up against Ed Harris, an enemy sniper. The movie features several extended tension-fraught sniping scenes (which feel like levels), punctuated by a tepid love-triangle plot (which feel like cut scenes). When Law is sitting behind cover and needs to figure out how to distract Harris long enough to escape a trap (solving a puzzle involving a broken mirror), I realize I would rather be playing this as a game. At least then I’d feel more invested in the action scenes, and the perfunctory plot sequences would be bearably short.
Children of Men (PASS). This is one of my favorite movies. It doesn’t lack action or suspense, but the scenes of this kind are so fraught with emotion and a sense of the world’s unfairness that I just got sucked in and wanted to know what happened next. It’s not just action you want to participate in—it’s action you can’t help but watch, where the consequences of actions are tragic and instantaneous. Plus, a large part of the movie is about getting another person to safety, and we all know that (in games) escort missions suck.
Shoot ‘Em Up (FAIL). Extended gun fight! Short narrative explanation describing where to go for the next—gun fight! Repeat until standard ending time. It’s not that this was bad, just that the actual plot and character interaction didn’t even need to be shortened—they were already basically cut scenes. This was a knowing self-parody, admitting that the plot is really just a vehicle to dish up some action. I’m okay with that! But in the end, the action is just shooting guys, for the most part (with bonus carrot attack), and I could’ve done that myself on my Xbox rather than letting Clive Owen have all the fun. Of course, the scene where he has to transition from a sex scene to a fight scene probably wouldn’t escape an Adults Only rating, meaning such a game could never get made. (That clip is NSFW, obviously.)
Wanted (PASS). This kind of reminded me of Shoot ‘Em Up in its absurd presentation and celebration of violence, but the variety of different sorts of craziness just made it hard to picture doing better as a game. In addition to your standard gun fights, you’ve got chase scenes, flipping cars to get a better angle on targets, ruthless mockery of the protagonist, some decent plot twists and turns, exploding rats, and more. I do hear they’re making it into a game, though, which makes me simultaneously hopeful and wary. This one might just work better as a movie.
I look forward to the day when video games are as capable as movies at handling nuanced narratives, and aren’t just (in my opinion and experience) a superior vehicle for generic action scenes. In the meantime, however, I may just go to movies for one thing, and games for another, and each medium now kind of raises the bar for the other.