Films that make you feel old

Five videogame-related movies to savour.

 

Sometimes a film comes along that makes you feel like an enthusiast for the hand-cranked gramophone in a world of downloads. Mine was Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s self-congratulatory graphic novel adaptation Sin City, which I didn’t respond to at all on any level. (Occasionally it’s nice for the critic to be off-duty, to see a film about which one is not required to build an argument for or against or somewhere in-between, and to simply say, like Tom Hanks in Big, “I don’t get it.” Not having been required to write about Sin City, I was able in that instance to give the critical synapses the night off.)

I felt it to a lesser degree with the new 3D Disney animation Wreck-It Ralph, about a character in a 1980s-style arcade game who tires of his role as a baddie and starts to look around for opportunities to be a hero. The story itself is familiar enough, the standard Be True To Yourself message that is always being promoted by the largely conservative, lily-livered, risk-averse mainstream film industry. And the film is often a hoot, with some resounding and well-played emotional beats, not to mention a good movie role at last for the abrasive comic Sarah Silverman, even if it is in voice only. (Yes, she had her own concert film, Jesus Is Magic but until now her film acting highlight has been her profane cameo at the start of Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun.)

But I was keenly aware that the screenplay’s numerous videogame references and in-jokes were whooshing straight over my analogue head. It isn’t that I’m the wrong generation - Atari Tennis is my Proustian Madeleine. (Top tip: you can always tell those of us who have never read Recherche le temps perdu by our prodigious mentions of the only detail we have picked up from the text.) But I was never a videogame nut, unless you count the clunky, late-1980s game Gumshoe, which involved pointing an unwieldy plastic gun at the TV screen and pressing the trigger, thereby causing the squat detective hero to jump. Primitive isn’t the word. If memory serves, the image was comprised of around six pixels. Eight at a push.

I’ve been keeping in with Tetris. Well, you have to do your bit, don’t you? And one of my children downloaded Temple Run for me. It’s all go around here. But as if to prove that I’m still alive and able to ascend the stairs without pausing for breath more than three or four times, here are five videogame-related films that I admire - and, more to the point, that I can watch without having to resort to annotated notes from any nearby teenagers.

eXistenZ 

David Cronenberg’s foray into the world of virtual reality gaming was anything but sterile: the fleshy consoles pulsed, jacks are plugged into human flesh and a gun is constructed from bone and gristle. One of his strongest and funniest movies.

The Last Starfighter 

This charming 1984 adventure got trampled in the glut of cheapo Star Wars knock-offs, but it’s an altogether different and more delightful movie in which a boy’s success at a crummy arcade game serves as his inadvertent audition to join an intergalactic battle.

Ra.One

Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan stars in this ambitious 3D fantasy about a virtual reality villain who breaks out of the game and into the real world to hunt down his adversary. The same plot was used much less effectively in Virtuosity, starring a pre-superstardom Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington.

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World 

Edgar Wright’s musical-action-comedy doesn’t feature much actual videogame action, but that’s because it all spills into the “real” lives of the twentysomething Canadian characters who’ve grown up on Zelda, Final Fantasy etc. The quest of Scott (Michael Cera) to vanquish his girlfriend’s seven evil ex-lovers is structured like an arcade game, while even the Universal imprint at the start of the film is remade in 8-bit, old-school, 1980s videogame style.

Tron

You didn’t really think I’d leave this out did you? This may not be as good as you remember it, but its retro charm is something to be reckoned with, and it looks even better next to the travesty of its tardy sequel, Tron: Legacy.

"Wreck-It Ralph" is on release.

A still from "Scott Pilgrim vs The World", Edgar Wright’s musical-action-comedy.

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.

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Dunkirk is an accomplished, expressive war film without the blood and guts

Christopher Nolan both stretches time and compresses it, creating suspense without horror.

The first line heard in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk is a declaration of identity. “English! Anglais!” shouts the inky-haired, milky-faced Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he hurries toward a group of French soldiers at the end of a deserted street, having narrowly escaped being gunned down by Germans. Identity is crucial in this movie. Questions arise about the nationality of a grunt who appears to have fallen mute: is he a German spy? And with several hundred thousand soldiers cornered in Dunkirk awaiting evacuation in May 1940, foreigners are weeded out of the lines of men waiting for rescue by British vessels.

Only one naval ship has been committed to the evacuation: with German bombers dotting the sky, picking off the troops waiting on the beach and jetty (or mole), the military won’t risk putting in jeopardy any vessels that may be needed come the next big battle. In the absence of other options, an improvised flotilla of civilian boats makes its bobbing way across the Channel towards Dunkirk.

That cry of “English! Anglais!” could also signal a returning home for the British-born, Anglo-American Nolan. For 20 years, he has been almost exclusively a Hollywood filmmaker, darkening the mood at multiplexes with his sombre Dark Knight series and his riddle-me-this puzzle pictures Inception and Interstellar, and becoming in the process one of the world’s genuine superstar directors. Dunkirk brings him back to his roots while continuing to pose the sort of structural challenges that have animated him since Memento (still his most wickedly inventive work) and The Prestige (a close second).

To maintain a triple-pronged narrative that cuts between soldiers such as Tommy on the beach, plucky civilian volunteers such as Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) inching across the waves toward France, and the RAF Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) babysitting the lot of them from the air, Nolan’s screenplay fuses the three timelines. This gives the impression that everything is happening concurrently, when, in fact, there are minuscule flashbacks, flash-forwards and replays of the action from different angles sewn into the editing. The events on the mole occupy around a week, the ones at sea a day, while the darting aerial combat lasts merely an hour. Providing momentum and continuity is Hans Zimmer’s surging score, which is shot through with mechanical groans and shrill, sawing violins redolent of exposed nerves.

Cinema has been stretching time since at least Battleship Potemkin but it is unusual to find elongation and compression used simultaneously. The soldiers’ long wait to be rescued, as they take cover in one ship that gets torpedoed and another that is beached, is necessarily abridged. The pilots’ mission, on the other hand, is stretched out and rendered in intricate detail; at one point, Farrier’s survival comes to depend on nothing more than a piece of chalk.

It’s a sly joke for Nolan to confine an actor as imposing as Tom Hardy to a cramped cockpit as well as hiding his pretty face with a disfiguring mask for the second time. (His unintelligible turn in The Dark Knight Rises caused viewers everywhere to cup their ears in a collective “Eh?”) Casting elsewhere works on the Thin Red Line principle that minor characters are more easily defined when played by stars: Kenneth Branagh is a naval commander, Cillian Murphy a shell-shocked soldier. Advance publicity has dwelt on the acting debut of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, who is the latest British pop star cast by the director following Tim Booth in Batman Begins and David Bowie in The Prestige. Styles does a decent job and doesn’t bump into the furniture, though there are other elements in the film more worthy of note.

Chief among them is the decision to create suspense without horror, substantiating Nolan’s claim that this is not so much a war movie as a survival film. Audiences are put on high alert by an ambush in the opening scene and by the shot of a dead man’s foot sticking out of the sand. A soldier asked how he knows that the tide is coming in responds by pointing out that bodies are washing up on the shore. Yet Nolan is manifestly not playing a game of oneupmanship against Saving Private Ryan. Hints of violence are sparing. Soldiers killed by bombs simply disappear in an explosion of earth, and the one death in which our empathy is actively solicited falls loosely and ignominiously into the category of friendly fire.

For all its accomplished action sequences and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s expressive cinematography, which mimics at times the distressed texture of Super 8, the picture is distinguished by a knack for undercutting genre conventions without diminishing them emotionally. Pretty much the only red stuff shown is the strawberry jam handed out on slices of bread aboard a hospital ship; the one time we hear the words of Churchill they are read aloud from the morning paper by an exhausted soldier understandably lacking in bombast or ceremony. 

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 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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