One of the great failures of 20th and 21st Century film criticism has been the failure to recognise that Blockbusters are a genre unto themselves. Forged in the 1970s by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Blockbusters borrow the trappings of other populist cinematic genres – such as science fiction, fantasy, espionage, war and disaster movies – but their aesthetics are entirely divorced from the concerns of the genres they borrow from.
In this column, I would like to examine the nature of the modern Blockbuster and argue that the next source of genre material for Blockbuster film will be video games. However, while there is much promise to be found in the idea of a film/game stylistic hybrid and Zack Snyder’s latest film Sucker Punch hints at much of that promise, it seems that the form of video games itself is as yet too underdeveloped to provide film makers with anything more than another set of visual tropes that will be used, re-used and eventually cast aside as the Blockbuster genre continues its predatory rampage through popular culture.
1. The Nature and History of Blockbusters
Prior to the release of Star Wars, 1970s American science fiction cinema was of a distinctively literary flavour, in that films such as Silent Running (1972) and Logan’s Run (1976) were attempts to vocalise contemporary cultural concerns by placing them at the centre of speculation about the future. Lucas’ break with this distinctly intellectual approach to science fiction is obvious in the first line of text that opens the film:
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Star Wars is not about the future of our world but about the distant past of some non-specified place. Star Wars is not about speculation but spectacle; spectacle that borrows from the iconography of science fiction and fantasy just as easily as it could have borrowed from the iconography of the War Movie (Pearl Harbour), the Disaster Film (Armageddon), Horror (Jaws), Super Hero comics (Spiderman) or Espionage thrillers (Quantum of Solace).
The primary aesthetic of the Blockbuster is spectacle, by which I mean sensory stimulation. Blockbusters deploy their obscene financial resources to slice into the human brain using the cutting edge of audio-visual technology; first there were lavish sets, thousands of extras, complex stunts and carefully choreographed fight-scenes, now there are computer generated images, pummelling sound effects and (more and more frequently) 3D technology. All of these technological developments are deployed not in the pursuit of ‘story’ or the elaboration of ‘character’ or ‘theme’ but in an attempt to directly stimulate the human brain. Because of this, people often dismiss Blockbusters as dumb, but this is to completely miss the point and do the genre a severe disservice.
Blockbusters are cultural undertakings so vast and so expensive that they have far more in common with gigantic engineering projects than they do with the production of small independent films. The production of your average Blockbuster involves hundreds of highly trained artisans and technicians striving to devise new techniques for stimulating the audience. This culture of technological development has transformed the summer months into an arena for a cultural arms race, wherein different studios wheel out their most spectacular films in an attempt to dominate the marketplace. To describe the product of such fierce technological and artistic competition as stupid is unjust, wrong-headed and culturally reactionary… but it is understandable.
One of the side effects of the Blockbuster arms race is that the pursuit of pure spectacle has lead to Blockbusters effectively by-passing many of the traditional building blocks of narrative storytelling. According to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), the tragedy was born when the Dionysian rituals of sex and blood fused with the abstract formal perfection of Homer’s Apollonian culture in such a way as to allow the darker aspects of human nature to be experienced and released without the need to engage in the orgies and blood-letting that accompanied traditional forms of worship. According to Nietzsche, the Greek Tragedy takes the Dionysian urge for stimulation and catharsis and funnels it through a series of artistic filters that shape it and render it subject to the intellect rather than just the senses. These filters include such mediating vehicles as ‘plot’, ‘character’, ‘narrative’ and ‘theme’ and they form the basic building blocks of dramatic narrative.
Now the clearness and firmness of epic form speak to him from the scene; now Dionysus no longer speaks through forces, but as an epic hero, almost with the tongue of Homer. – Pp. 29
Over the years, the building blocks of this Athenian compromise have come to occupy such a central place in our conception of drama that we have completely forgotten that they were only ever a means to an end. In a form of what can only be called intellectual superstition, we have confused cause with effect and now lambaste those works that fail to feature the dramatic building blocks introduced as a part of the Athenian compromise; we bemoan the lack of characterisation in Blockbusters, we lament their incoherent plotting and we criticise their thematic incoherence. But plot, character and theme were only ever one solution to the problem. Sitting through a film like Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007), it is clear that Bay has little interest in plot, character or theme, but to conclude that this makes his films stupid is to miss the point: Blockbusters are not stupid… they are inhuman.
Our humanity dangles by a thread. We place ourselves above the animal realm by virtue of our capacity for thought and reason, but the more we learn about the functioning of the brain, the more we come to realise that we are nothing more than well-trained beasts. One arena in which our bestial natures is revealed is in drunkenness or narcotic bliss, as these states are the product not of thought or reason but of base neurological stimulation. We drink, we smoke, we snort, we inject, and the happiness that comes from such actions are seen as being somehow less genuine or admirable than the pleasures of the mind. Nietzsche was well aware of this tension between us when he distinguished between the artistic world of dreams associated with Apollo and the artistic world of drunkenness associated with Dionysus:
It is under the influence of the narcotic draught, which we hear in the songs of all primitive men and peoples, or with the potent coming of spring penetrating all nature with joy, that these Dionysian emotions awake, which, as they intensify, cause the subjective to vanish into complete self-forgetfulness. – Pp. 3-4
A form of self-forgetfulness, Nietzsche explains, which is completely at odds with traditional notions of healthy-mindedness. In attempting to by-pass the trappings of Apollonian culture, Blockbusters find themselves marked by the taint of unhealthy-mindedness. Films such as Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) make little sense when examined for plot and theme because they attempt to directly stimulate our brains using a torrent of rapidly changing shapes and deafening sound effects. Blockbusters allow us to release our Dionysian impulses to kill and fuck by subjecting ourselves to 90 to 120 minutes of inchoate sensory experience. Like the Dionysian revellers of the Ancient world, fans of Blockbusters remind us of the thin veneer of our humanity; they are drunkards and drug-addicts sitting in the gloom of vast cinemas with drool on their chins, unsightly bulges in their trousers and the blissed-out grins of those who have lived to see the death of thousands and the levelling of entire cities.
However, because Blockbusters are the product of the film industry, and because the film industry still likes to think of itself as based in the creative arts rather than psycho-pharmacology, Blockbusters pay lip service to the old Athenian compromise. They continue to have crude approximations of plot and figures that vaguely resemble human characters but in order to find these plots and characters, Blockbuster filmmakers are obliged to move outside of their genre and seek inspiration in other fields.
2. Blockbusters and Their Relationship with Genre
In the 2000s, the most popular source of narrative material for the Blockbuster genre was super hero comics. Spiderman, Superman and Batman provided cinema audiences with hours of spectacle and investors with billions of dollars in revenue. In previous decades, the dramatic gloss has come from War films, Disaster movies and Science Fiction, but these genres are only ever the delivery vector for spectacle.
What makes one genre or another a more effective delivery vector at a given time is, I suspect, the product of a complex interplay of cultural factors. For example, the popularity of super hero films during the first decade of the 21st Century could well be the result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the popular political sentiment that someone was needed who could cut through the bullshit and solve America’s problems by force. Similarly, the fall from grace of the Disaster-Blockbuster that so dominated the cinematic landscape in the 1990s could well be ascribed to market-saturation and a sense of over-familiarity. Audiences will only pay so many times to watch an asteroid destroy a city before they get bored and move on.
Though Super Hero Blockbusters continue to be made and enjoyed by the cinema-going audience, there is a sense that they are no longer as central to popular tastes as they once were. Both Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) deconstruct the iconography of the Super Hero film, and the relative popularity of both titles can be seen as a sign that a backlash is beginning to form, and that audiences are beginning to grow tired with Super Hero iconography. Indeed, in recent years we’ve started to see a subtle shift in the dominant iconography of the Blockbuster genre.
Back in the 1990s, an attempt was made by Hollywood to cash-in on the popularity of video games. Hollywood money flowed into such projects as Street Fighter (1994) and Super Mario Bros. (1993) resulting only in scorn from fans and venom from critics. The problem was that much of the iconography of video games is derived from popular cinema in the first place and so any attempt to take video game characters and transport them onto film could only look a) hopelessly derivative and b) utterly silly, as a film about a video game character strips out everything that makes that character interesting in the first place, namely their presence in an interactive game.
Having failed to learn its lesson, Hollywood has spent the last ten years trying to make successful video games into successful films with disastrous results. Video game franchises such as Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, Max Payne and Hitman have all yielded great games over the years but they have collectively failed to produce a single decent film. This is because, by attempting to build films around video game characters, Hollywood producers were failing to understand what it is that makes video games such a uniquely entertaining medium.
3. The Shifting Tides of Culture
Two of the most popular Blockbusters of recent years are James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). These films –along with Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) – approach filming games from an entirely different angle: Instead of taking video game characters and placing them in a film (as when adapting books and comics),they all borrow from the visual iconography of what it is like to experience playing a video game.
For example, Avatar features a character that uses technology not only to inhabit the body of a fantastical alien creature, but also to use that body to fight battles and explore an unreal environment. Similarly, Inception features such video game elements as interactive environments, training levels and the kind of mid-town car chases and gun fights that feature in the infamous but immensely successful Grand Theft Auto series. Scott Pilgrim takes this process of aesthetic appropriation one step further by describing the social life of a 20-something drop-out whose experience of the world is so distorted by video games that he sees minor triumphs as ‘bonuses’ and emotional confrontations as ‘boss fights’.
The success of these films suggests that, while Hollywood has had little success in adapting the content of video games for the screen, adapting the form of video games can yield remarkable critical and financial successes. If the 2000s were the decade of the super hero, then the 2010s promise to be the decade of the video game. However, as initial flops such as Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros. and Doom have shown, bringing games to the big screen involves the creation of a whole new set of cinematic techniques. Games are not novels, and while the techniques required to successfully adapt written fiction for the screen are now well-understood (they are, after all, nearly as old as the medium of film itself) they are simply not relevant when attempting to turn video gaming into films.
Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is, for all its failings, an attempt to develop a basic vocabulary for making films out of games.
4. Sucker Punch – The Plot
Sucker Punch opens with a torrent of wordless melodrama. Set in the grey and rain-slicked world of comic book noire, the film begins with the death of a mother. Enraged by the fact that he was cut out of the will, the evil stepfather sets about exacting revenge upon his stepdaughters using a combination of brute force and sexual abuse. Unsuccessful in his attempts to break the 20 year-old Baby Doll (Emily Browning), the stepfather turns his attention to her younger sister. In an attempt to save her sister, Baby Doll climbs attacks her stepfather and contributes to the death of her sister: more than enough for her stepfather to pack her off to an insane asylum. Arrived at the insane asylum, the mute Baby Doll discovers a brutal, repressive and corrupt environment where she is to be lobotomised in the hope that it will keep her quiet. Five days till a lobotomy; five days in which to escape… and escape she does.
As soon as she is settled in the asylum, Baby Doll uses her imagination to project herself into a more glamorous version of the asylum. Here, the cruel stepfather is the cruel priest who runs the orphanage and the cruel ward attendant is the cruel owner of a brothel. In this brothel are a number of patients who are re-invented as ‘dancers’ and the person who will lobotomise Baby Doll is reinvented as a High Roller who will presumably pay for the pleasure of deflowering her. (I say ‘presumably’ as the film’s 12A certificate means that the script has to remain quite coy about many of its more sexual elements.) Indeed, though Sucker Punch does not explicitly state that the ‘dancers’ are also forced to have sex with their clients or that the High Roller will be paying in order to rape and so ‘break-in’ Baby Doll for use by other customers, the symbolism of the ice pick lobotomy (right down to the trickle of blood) is shockingly blunt.
Talking with the other girls, Baby Doll hatches a plan that will allow them all to escape before the arrival of the Doctor/High Roller. This plan, in true video game fashion, involves collecting five separate objects. In the world of the asylum, Baby Doll helps the other girls to steal the items by acting out her problems before an audience (a form of briskly skimmed-over theatrical therapy) and so providing a distraction. In the world of the brothel, the distraction comes in the form of an erotic dance – but when Baby Doll dances, she escapes to a third reality in which she and the other girls are protagonists in a genre-hopping video game.
Clad in an array of sexy uniforms and armed with swords, pistols and machine guns (as well as sundry tricked-out vehicles and gadgets), the girls fight clockwork soldiers, dragons, orcs and evil robots in a series of spectacular action set-pieces, culminating with the collection of the requisite plot coupons in more of less symbolic form (the map remains a map, but the kitchen knife becomes a bomb with the capacity to level a city).
As the girls plough through the various quests, it rapidly becomes clear that things are a going to be a bit more difficult than they imagined. During the last game sequence, something goes wrong and the illusion shatters; the girls are dragged back to the brothel and, instead of fighting robots, they find themselves facing the reality of a chef with a knife. As one of the girls sacrifices herself for the sake of the rest of the group and their escape plan, the comforting reality of the game reasserts itself and her sacrifice is played out in terms of a bomb levelling a city rather than a hooker bleeding to death in a dirty kitchen.
With the objects collected, the surviving girls make their way out of the brothel but Baby Doll comes to realise that she too must sacrifice herself in order for someone else to be free. The person is, poetically enough, someone’s innocent sister.
5. Sucker Punch – The Bones
From the opening scene, Sucker Punch parades its debt to video games.
Baby Doll is introduced as the protagonist but for the first twenty minutes of the film, she does not utter a word. This silence is reminiscent of the silence common to the protagonists of most games with first-person perspectives including the award-winning Half Life series. Baby Doll acts upon the world physically, but not verbally. Verbally, she is passive and as a result, it is easy to project a persona onto her and so empathise with her plight.
Secondly, Sucker Punch’s plot owes a lot to the sort of weak plotting conventions common to video games. The fact that the plot revolves around the collection of five objects (including a map) seems a clear reference to the ways in which video game designers habitually pad out the running time of their games by making you repeat the same quest five times for five different objects.
Thirdly, the visual styling of Sucker Punch’s action sequences draw heavily upon the genre-mashing visual conventions of video games. The first sequence, though ostensibly set during the first world war differs markedly from the real first World War in a number of different ways:
- (i) the protagonists are far more colourful than the secondary characters (the female protagonists may be dressed like ninja showgirls but their fellow soldiers wear the uniform, muck and misery of real first World War soldiers);
- (ii) the German soldiers are said to be corpses reanimated using steam and clockwork technology, meaning that it is morally fine to kill them;
- (iii) the protagonists have artillery support provided them by a mech.
Such genre-blending tendencies are common in games from a number of different genres including the Final Fantasy RPGs (high fantasy with science fiction) and button-mashers such as Bayonetta and Devil May Cry (Horror combined with Wu Xia films, including images borrowed from religion and steampunk).
Fourthly, the in-game missions are given to the girls by a character who exists purely in order to deliver instructions and the sort of clunky dialogue that, in translation from Japanese, yields such gems as ‘All your base are belong to us’. The presence of a character who exists purely in order to deliver mission briefings is also quite common in video games, but Snyder’s inclusion of the character is most closely reminiscent of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon of the 1980s, wherein the tendency of table-top roleplaying games to feature a player who will brief the other players and describe the adventure to them was reflected in the character of Dungeon Master.
Fifthly, the action sequences are effectively a form of escapism through which Baby Doll can dissociate herself from the real-world horrors she is experiencing. The cathartic nature of violent video games is mirrored in the fact that, in stressful situations, Baby Doll likes to imagine that she’s killing robots or clockwork Germans.
Together, these various elements constitute an homage to the form of video games that rivals that of any film made to this date. Sucker Punch does not simply tip its hat to games, it actively takes on not only many of video gaming’s stylistic tics, but also the growing postmodernity of the video gaming experience.
There is a point in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid (1998) when a character with psychic powers demonstrates his powers by moving the game pad that the player uses to interact with the game. In effect, this boils down to the game instructing the player to put the pad down on a flat surface and then activating the inbuilt vibration function thereby making the pad move across the flat surface. What is extraordinary about this sequence is not its evocative power but its wilful breaking of the fourth wall. Metal Gear Solid acknowledges the fact that it is a game and by enfolding elements of the game-playing experience within the game, Kojima effectively extends the content of the game beyond what occurs on-screen and into the way in which the player interacts with the screen and the game pad.
A similar breaking of the fourth wall can be seen in games such as Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time (2003) where the need to start again every time you die is brought inside the game itself by granting the player the power to re-wind their actions and re-play the last few seconds of the game so as to avoid their last mistake.
Sucker Punch mirrors the growing intertextuality of the video game experience by having Baby Doll shift seamlessly between the reality of the game, the reality of the brothel and the reality of the insane asylum. However, what makes Sucker Punch such an interesting film is not the fact that it displays an impressively detailed understanding of video game aesthetics, but rather the way in which it uses these images and techniques to attempt to create a cinematic effect.
6. Sucker Punch – The Skeleton
Sucker Punch is a game all about empowerment. Not the hollow empowerment of wearing revealing clothing to titillate men and so ‘own’ one’s status as a sexual object, but rather the power to use particular perceptions of the world to colour our experiences of it.
Baby Doll is in a terrible situation. Whether locked up in a corrupt insane asylum waiting to be lobotomised or imprisoned in a sinister brothel waiting to be raped, she has every need to escape from her world, in both the physical and psychological senses of the word. When Baby Doll shifts between the asylum and the brothel, she is choosing to perceive her world in a particular way both in order to smooth off the sharper edges (i.e. seeing herself and her friends as glamorous dancers rather than a grubby mental patients), and as a way of making sense of her world. Baby Doll’s fugues to other realities can be seen as examples of what psychologists call dissociation.
According to DSM-IV, dissociation is a reaction to traumatic events including the death of a parent or loved one, as well as the sort of physical, psychological and sexual abuse that Baby Doll is forced to live with. Dissociation manifests itself as:
- Depersonalisation: the tendency to see oneself acting without recognising the control one has over those actions.
- Derealisation: the distortion of the subject’s perceptions of physical reality.
- Psychogenic Amnesia: an extreme form of amnesia.
Sucker Punch shows Baby Doll experiencing all of these symptoms and does so using many of the intertextual techniques that are increasingly common in video games. However, beyond the merely psychological, Sucker Punch also makes the case that our experience of the world is so coloured by the beliefs we have about it that our experience of the world can effectively be shaped by deliberate choice.
In an essay entitled “On Fairy Stories”, J.R.R. Tolkien laid out a theory whereby consolation might be attained through the process of escapism. Tolkien argued, that it might be possible to find some crumbs of consolation in escaping to an internally coherent secondary world where happy endings are real and dreams really do come true.
By choosing to project herself first into a slightly more glamorous version of her insane asylum and then into a video game world where she and her friends are super-human warriors, Baby Doll is not merely seeking escape but seeking a sort of spiritual consolation – a consolation denied her by the harshness of the real world, but made possible through the process of Tolkienian escapism. As the final voice-over says, humans are both their own jailers and their own liberators and, no matter how wretched the situation we find ourselves in may be, we can always choose to see it in a different light and by so doing re-make the world to suit our purposes.
Sucker Punch draws our attention to the similarities between Tolkienian redemptive escapism, the cathartic escapism to be had in the playing of violent video games and the cathartic Dionysian nature of Blockbuster sensationalism. By drawing our attention to these similarities, Snyder is sketching out the basic mechanics for a new form of cinematic catharsis – one grounded not in Apollo’s plastic arts and the building blocks of narrative storytelling, but in Athena’s technological accomplishment and the process of immersion into the reality of a game.
7. The Future of Blockbusters?
For all of its technical brilliance and its formal innovation, Sucker Punch ultimately suffers for the relative youth of video games as a medium.
By the time film arrived on the scene, the novel was well over a hundred years old and theatre’s age could be measured in the rise and fall of entire civilizations. Video games, by comparison, are a relatively recent invention and their influence upon the medium of cinema is easily contained within the living memory of even the youngest of adults. While there have been studies conducted on the use of video games as a form of exposure therapy in the treatment of post-traumatic stress, we are still a long way from understanding what it is that games can and cannot do for us as a medium on an emotional and psychological level. Indeed, most of the more lavishly produced video games (such as the Medal of Honour, Gears of War or Killzone franchises) limit themselves to creating interactive versions of cinematic Blockbusters in which visual spectacle is augmented solely by a degree of control over fight scenes and chase sequences. Emotional engagement is usually limited to in-game cut-scenes that take their queues directly from the cinematic medium instead of attempting to engage our emotions in ways that films cannot recreate.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.
Heavy Rain (2010) is a game with a branching narrative structure. Depending upon how players fare in a series of tests and what choices they make at key points in the narrative, the game’s story alters and the characters come to take on somewhat different characteristics. By limiting the player’s involvement in the narrative whilst maximising the impact of the instances of involvement, Heavy Rain manages to create a degree of emotional investment in the game’s outcome that is rare in video games as a medium. In Heavy Rain, we are forced to physically act out the tasks required of our characters; when our characters fail, so do we, and thus we are made to feel a degree of complicity in our character’s failures and the consequences of their actions.
There is no denying that Heavy Rain is doing something that films cannot do, and that it engages our emotions using a set of techniques that are very different to those of ancient tragedy.
Snyder seems to realise that games such as Heavy Rain offer the Blockbuster an opportunity to sever its reliance upon the traditional building blocks of dramatic storytelling, but while Sucker Punch is a bold step into largely undiscovered cinematic country, it is clear that he is – in the parlance of the film itself – writing cheques his butt can’t cash.
While Sucker Punch mimics many of video gaming’s stylistic tics and points at the potential for video games to do something genuinely different, it is not at all clear that the film is ever more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, Sucker Punch is most effective when it is being a traditional summer Blockbuster that pummels the audience into submission using loud sound effects and spectacular visuals. When Snyder tries to do anything more than hint at the consolatory power of escapism, the film rapidly becomes preachy and elusive. The final reel’s suggestion that neither the rain-dappled comic book noire of the asylum nor the erotic fantasia of the brothel is more real than the other may well be an interesting idea that speaks to our tendency to construct and live in our own realities, but Snyder does not bother to explore any of the implications of this idea, nor what it means for the characters.
Sucker Punch is a film that promises much but ultimately delivers nothing more than empty promises. These promises may well suggest a fascinating direction for the makers of future Blockbusters, but by failing to deliver on any of tem, the film winds up feeling not only hopelessly portentous but also fundamentally dishonest.
At root, the real problem is that Snyder seems to be suggesting that films about games could deliver things that films have never delivered before, but the reality of modern video gaming is that most games are content to try and ape films. It is too early for games to rejuvenate cinema, because games are still in the process of finding their feet as a medium. And by the time game designers have found their feet, who is to say that cinema will not have moved on all on its own?
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK. His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector. He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.