Which is better: a harebrained movie that does what it says it’d do on the packet, or an ambitious film that challenges, confounds, frustrates and fascinates viewers? Which is more meaningful: a popcorn flick that never wanted to be anything special, wink-winking audiences in regular acknowledgement of its dumbness, or a film that tries – and fails – to achieve greatness? Keep the bar low and nail it, or place the bar high and not quite get there?
In the context of this discussion – about what constitutes the ‘greatest video game ever’ – Dwayne Johnson’s (pictured above) latest blockbuster, the popcorn monster movie Rampage, is an example of the former on all accounts. This film ain’t high art and it knows it. As Johnson himself said in a recent Rolling Stone profile: “This is a movie! There’s a crocodile the size of a football stadium – we’re not making Saving Private Ryan”.
Yet Rampage has been proclaimed the highest-rated video game movie ever made. That does not mean much in terms of critical approval, since the film is currently sitting on a 50% Rotten Tomatoes rating. But given the very low standards associated with video game adaptations, and Johnson’s claim that Rampage may have “broken the dreaded video game curse,” the actor’s latest vehicle for muscle-flexing and zinger-delivering has some kind significance, even if it is simply to trigger a conversation about greatness and video game adaptations.
The second film in this discussion – the one that tried to be great but failed – is director Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. It is an easy film to criticise: an intensely sombre and cerebral work, with a problematic structure – including a bizarrely muted ending. And yet Kurzel never condescends to viewers, in a genre that almost always infantilises audiences. It is the best video game adaptation so far, even, and in part, because of its problems.
Justin Kurzel is one of few filmmakers in history to have wrested over $100 million to make an experimental art film.
Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (who shot the first season of True Detective and Top of the Lake, and Kurzel’s other two features: Snowtown and Macbeth) conjure so many striking compositions it’s easy to take them for granted. There are small touches, like connections drawn between a child’s hoodie and ancient cloak-like garb. There are sensational aerial shots, the camera movement seemingly dictated by an eagle, soaring above exotic locations. There are even compositions that combine two periods of time into single images, without using split screens. Kurzel is one of few filmmakers in history to have wrested over $100 million to make an experimental art film.
Risk averse studios avoid projects like this. Assassin’s Creed went on to demonstrate why, under-performing at the box office and uniting critics and audiences, who groaned in unison that the film was “too confusing.” Fresh from his 2015 adaptation of Macbeth (which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard) Kurzel brought Shakespearean heft, exploring appearance and reality, order and disorder, violence and the oligarchy, culpability and conscience. It all sounds rather morose, and indeed it is. Neither Kurzel, Fassbender nor Cotillard are known for a sense of humour. The idea of attending a dinner party with them is, frankly, terrifying.
Another film that should factor into a discussion about the greatest video game adaptations ever made (certainly in terms of visual execution) was actually not based on a game at all. That may sound problematic, but things are not so simple in consideration of Russian director Ilya Naishuller’s 2015 action movie Hardcore Henry. Presented entirely from a first person perspective, the film was criticised for the same reason another experimental project from a Russian director, the single shot 2002 drama Russian Ark, was praised: because the filmmaker remained devoted to his concept long after many, if not most audiences would have tired of it.
Did anyone involved with the making of Rampage have conviction for anything, beyond the desire to make money?
Hardcore Henry is both the most and least visually distinctive video game (or video game-esque) movie ever made. The most because no other film looks like this, the viewer at all times observing a tumultuously navigated mise en scene through the eyes of a bio-human protagonist. And the least, because every first-person shooter video game looks pretty much exactly like this, making its lineage to gaming unavoidable. If Assassin’s Creed has too much plot complexity, Hardcore Henry has too little. It is a film that lives for the moment, at every moment, with scant offerings in terms of nuanced narrative.
If Naishuller aimed to reinvent the action genre, he chose the wrong medium. Hardcore Henry would have kicked arse in virtual reality. The FPS presentation feels gimmicky, and yet I found myself unexpectedly drawn to the film for a second and third viewing. The great American film critic Andrew Sarris once observed that technique never transcends conviction. In Hardcore Henry we see an interesting fusion of the two. Naishuller’s technique is nothing if not infused with conviction, and that conviction is nothing if not welded to technique.
Did anyone involved with the making of Rampage have conviction for anything, beyond the desire to make money? According to the aforementioned Rolling Stone piece, the producers originally wanted the film to have an unconventional ending. Johnson insisted otherwise. The superstar actor, of course, won the argument and his vision of homogenised goop prevailed. To claim this film as the best video game adaptation ever made, even with the caveat that the bar is low, is to celebrate mediocrity. Ambition and achievement are hardly the same thing, but an ambitious film is usually, at the very least, an interesting film.