"What makes LA Noire so good as a filmic experience holds it back as a game"

Trying to copy the movie business has its pitfalls.

Arthur C Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic. I imagine that's how anyone who hasn't played a computer game since, say, Doom or Sonic the Hedgehog might feel about LA Noire. The game, set in the police force of Los Angeles in the 1940s, is both very new and very traditional.

The novelty comes from its unique motion-capture system. Instead of blank-eyed heads parrotting clunky lines at you, LA Noire's characters deliver the sharp script with a mixture of grimaces, shifty eyes, nervous tics and eerily recognisable mannerisms. (The likenesses are so good that you can play a rewarding meta-game of "spot the American character actor": veterans of Heroes, Dexter and Buffy appear.)

The story follows an LAPD officer, Cole Phelps (played by Aaron Staton, Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove), who is not long back from fighting the Japanese at Okinawa. He's a by-the-book cop in a motley police department, trying to bring justice to a Los Angeles that's just as corrupt as that of the films LA Confidential or Chinatown.

The movie references are particularly apt here, because this is a game that aspires, above all, to be cinematic. There's the budget, for a start -- reportedly upwards of $50m -- which has enabled Rockstar to create an exquisitely detailed game world, complete with period cars and clothes (not to mention some very period attitudes to race and gender). The music, too, is subtly excellent, with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to drive to and wailing jazz stings to indicate the presence of clues at crime scenes.

For me, however, the most innovative aspect of LA Noire is the maturity of its storyline: there's none of the sniggering puerility of Rockstar's major franchise, Grand Theft Auto. Even better, Cole Phelps's character develops over the course of the story; something that is all too rare with video game protagonists and has inhibited their ability to provoke empathy.

The irony is that what makes LA Noire so good as a filmic experience sometimes holds it back as a game. Despite its huge map and cast of characters, the game is tightly linear. In this, it's more like a traditional point-and-click adventure, such as Monkey Island, than the more recent -- and similarly cinematic -- Heavy Rain, where your choices have more far-reaching consequences. Also, the game is sometimes so keen to help you get things right, with sounds and vibrations aiding you to find clues, and your partner chipping in if you're making a real hash of things, that you can feel like a passenger rather than a protagonist.

Nonetheless, LA Noire is an ambitious and successful game, extraordinary both in what it is and in what it represents for the industry. And there is one key respect in which it differs from a film: in the age of the 90-minute megaplex blockbuster, it demands more than 20 hours of your time to tell a sprawling, dark, mature and intricately connected story.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman. She tweets: @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories