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Edge Of Tomorrow: Gaming The Language Of Film

April 5, 2015

Edge Of Tomorrow

Last year on Edge Online David Valjalo argued convincingly that the blockbusters of 2013, and Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium in particular, were evidence of the growing influence of videogame aesthetics on Hollywood. “Elysium is the boldest embrace yet of videogame language in the cinema,” he wrote, describing a film packed with respawns and plasma shields that is “steeped in the iconography and pace of the multiplayer deathmatch.”

He’s right, of course, although one of this year’s big-hitters goes even further. Edge Of Tomorrow, a science-fiction blockbuster starring Tom Cruise, not only uses the language of games, but their grammar too, thereby raising fundamental questions about the core conceptual mechanics of games and films and whether they’ll ever be usefully compatible.

This isn’t to trample on Valjalo’s optimistic assessment that Elysium’s constructive borrowing had for once taken the derogatory sting out of the description “like a videogame”, but it is to set it in context. Yes, there is a growing aesthetic overlap between cinema and games, one built substantially on a common vocabulary of violent action, tech fetishism, and the easy cultural shorthand of military narratives. War stories, science fiction, guns and gunmen – as Hollywood streamlines its blockbuster storytelling for an overseas market that now pays more than half the bills (nuance, after all, travels badly) these things constitute the growing point of intersection with videogames, where story has always been subservient to action.

If last year felt like some kind of watershed it’s more likely down to the unusually high number of science fiction films it contained than because it was truly remarkable. 2013’s disproportionately bumper crop of slick, futuristic genre movies, which as well as Elyisum included Oblivion, After Earth, Pacific Rim, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Riddick and Ender’s Game, offered us disproportionately abundant evidence of a shared visual language, but really formed a sharp spike on an already upward curve.

And that’s because this is a visual language that already exists, sprawling and inextricable, in a constant feedback loop of films, games, and animation. Games didn’t invent dropships, mech suits or weaponised bio-augmentations, though they might have had a hand in refining them and pulling them in and out of fashion. This visual feedback loop isn’t limited to visual media, either – one of the richest veins of influence involves the the hardass roughnecks and rough-hewn hardware that run from James Cameron’s Aliens, through Bungie’s Halo (and its countless imitators) right up to Edge Of Tomorrow, and which in large part originated with Robert A. Heinlen’s 1960 novel, Starship Troopers.

In other words, I find it interesting but not particularly significant that the props, scenery and action beats of games have become more prominently than usual in our popcorn cinema. The toy-town simplicity of Transformers and Battleship, the Heinlen-styled exploration of real and simulated action in Ender’s Game, and even the exhaustively referential irony of Scott Pilgrim – this is all so much surface. What would be more remarkable is a structural, rather than visual acknowledgement of games in cinema – perhaps even the incorporation of elements which assumed familiarity with the structural conceits and conventions of games. This is where we inch closer to Edge Of Tomorrow.

There are far fewer examples of this kind of conceptual influence. I’d argue that Christopher Nolan’s remarkable and intricate Inception is one. It is a film arranged as a series of levels, a layer-cake of stacked dream worlds including, much to the wry amusement of anyone familiar with the generic shooters of the mid ‘00s, its very own snow mission. More than this, Inception’s notion of designed dreams is about world building – the impressive, intimidating shot of a Paris street, townhouses and all, curling impossibly up to the heavens evokes both a creative flexibility and a malleability of the physical world which corresponds to the greybox potential of videogames.

Even more crucial to the structural assumptions of videogames is their notion of time. As mentioned earlier, for games story is always subservient to action, the knock-on effect of which is that time is shattered and pieced back together as required, the narrative cohesion of one moment leading to the next sacrificed in the name of getting the action just so.

Recreating this on film isn’t new. Episodes of both the Twilight Zone (‘Shadow Play’) and The X-Files (‘Monday’) have featured time loops, and Harold Ramis’ comedy Groundhog Day has become synonymous with the conceit. But I’d single out two films – Duncan Jones’ Source Code as well as Edge Of Tomorrow – as particularly relevant because as they’re so clearly located within that shared visual and thematic space of explosions and technology.

Despite what its own characters initially tell us, Source Code isn’t really about time travel at all. In the film Jake Gyllenhaal’s disembodied war veteran slips into the body of a teacher on a train, repeatedly reliving the teacher’s final eight minutes while looking for clues to identify the train’s bomber. It has the iterative learn-and-reload of a videogame, it foregrounds the notion of entering a mission environment through an avatar – ‘playing’ somebody else – and, in the final reckoning, the source code project itself is revealed to be not a conservation of a dead man’s memories, but a quantum gateway into other universes like ours. The technology generates fresh ‘instances’ of time which are just as real and valid as our own, with each reboot visually prefaced by a wireframe world dissolving into the real one. It’s an analogy for the function of game engines and the experience of playing games – thousands, millions of players existing invisibly simultaneously in the same space as you –  which has also been explored by Irrational Games’ philosophical shooter, Bioshock Infinite.

What makes Edge Of Tomorrow distinct even from Source Code, though, is a more faithful recreation of the experience – the priorities and the consequences – of playing a videogame. Tom Cruise’s initially reluctant soldier is forced to participate in what’s effectively D-Day 2, a Normandy invasion against an alien force that brings together strong echoes of Heinlen (exosuits, grunt talk, and Aliens’ Bill Paxton) with a replay of the beach landing sequence from Saving Private Ryan which deeply influenced both subsequent action cinema and first-person shooters from Medal Of Honor onwards.

On his first run through the invasion – and please beware that spoilers follow – Cruise’s soldier is killed, before waking abruptly back on the airstrip tarmac. Like Gyllenhaal – like us – he learns and reloads, using his countless lives as training exercises. He gets better at the game, and Cruise’s attitude, his glib detachment from his mortality, makes it feel like a game, muttering to himself about surprise attacks and enemy positions he needs to remember on his next playthrough.

In fact it’s this glibness which defines Edge Of Tomorrow’s unusually sophisticated relationship with games. It’s revealed after a while that Cruise’s ability to reset the day is an alien power accidentally conferred upon our hero. This gives him both an objective – kill the boss alien who controls time – and a fail state, because if Cruise lives through to the next day his power disappears.

This leads to the film’s funniest scenes, which involve an injured Cruise protesting uselessly as he’s executed by co-star Emily Blunt in order to trigger a restart. These comically brutal moments reflect the way many of us play games, stepping on a grenade or walking into enemy fire to wipe a botched attempt back to a checkpoint if we know we haven’t the ammo or health to take on the rest of the mission. In so doing it also recognises the difference between death and failure in games, which are sometimes the same thing but not always – failure meaning the inability to complete an objective, and death on its own meaning just the inconvenience of a restart.

Game designer Jonathan Blow has touched on this subject when discussing the origins of his platformer, Braid, which is built around manipulating time in various ways. He was partly inspired by dissatisfaction at Ubisoft’s Prince Of Persia series (I dread to think what he made of Gyllenhaal’s film version) and a friend’s extreme-sounding suggestion that players should be able to rewind every game, at whatever point they wish. Death, this friend argued, is a hangover from the arcade model of pulling coins from pockets, an inconvenient structural convention the medium has never shrugged off. Where lives once had a monetary value to us players, now death is essentially consequence free – and in recognising this Edge Of Tomorrow isn’t just about games, but very specifically about post-arcade games, and how we play now.

This is a sufficiently sophisticated response to ideas which exist only in videogames that I’d argue Edge Of Tomorrow would be unthinkable without them, and is a much richer experience with an understanding of them. That said, the film doesn’t really mimic the temporally fractured nature of videogames – it only pretends to.

On the surface it’s about jagged respawn-and-repeat, but the film itself weaves these moments together into a continuous, perfect whole. In other words, the film itself is still not directly analogous to games, although perhaps the act of filmmaking is. Film production is an imperfect stop-start process in which certain moments – certain scenes – are repeated until they’re successfully completed. Few people remember the existential cul-de-sacs of failed gameplay – instead our minds, like a film’s editor, cut together a continuous experience from the loose reels. While the unique properties of interactivity mean playing and watching will likely remain unbridgeably distinct activities, recognising this might be the next stage in what’s best described as the relationship between – rather than the convergence of – cinema and games.

*This article originally appeared on Edge Online

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