Digital Reign: When the computers out-cinema the cinema

The Movie Franchise: Alien
The Game: Alien: Isolation (2014)

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Not content with the beating it took at the hands of the Predator franchise, the Alien franchise is being gradually kicked to death by prequels which undermine the best qualities of the originals while bolting on elements of bigger and better sci-fi like 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968), 2010 The Year We Make Contact (1984), Blade Runner (1982) and leftover script ideas from Star Trek. Let’s not misunderstand, Alien 3 (1992) is a mess where a decent film might have been, and the most terrifying thing in Alien: Resurrection (1997) is the decision to cast Winona Ryder. ‘Ahhhhhhh, no, save us!’ But Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s Aliens (1989) were, and continue to be, the benchmark for sci-fi horror and sci-fi action respectively. Having learned nothing from the prequel-related natural disaster which sadly struck the Star Wars franchise in 1999, 2002 and tragically again in 2005, Ridley Scott decided to make Prometheus in 2012. Prometheus can be accurately summed up by quoting a line from the TV show Blackadder:

“It starts badly, tails off in the middle and the less said about the end the better.”

The cast are poorly used, the story is confused and full of holes, the characters are underdeveloped and unlikable, and the best thing you can say about it is that Ridley sure can shoot a landscape. None of this was corrected by Alien: Covenant (2017). Michael Fassbender must feel like he’s swimming upstream through a river of sick because even his interesting and nuanced performance couldn’t raise Covenant above the level of a poor Alien rip-off. Just the dumbest space explorers ever. Ever!

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What is amazing is that in 2014 there was another addition to the wider Alien universe which was faithful to the original, had interesting characters and a fun story: the video game by Creative Assembly called Alien: Isolation. Alien: Isolation is a rare instance where a video game shows an existing movie franchise how it should have been done. We are all well aware that the transition from video game franchise to movie franchise is a process which tends to produce crap. ‘Occasionally watchable’ crap if you like that sort of thing. It is possible, for example, to think that the film Max Payne (2008) with Mark Walberg was an inventive and hallucinogenic police thriller but it just didn’t compare to the thrill of the computer game where you actually guided a pixelated Max though seedy, snow covered New York. Similarly, Assassin’s Creed (2016) was a noble attempt to recreate the depth and feel of the games on the big screen but, again, it didn’t compare to actually making the character swan-dive off the top of a medieval church into a Venice canal. Also, and with very few exceptions, the transition from movie franchise to video game franchise is a rocky one. Most are cheaply-produced, marketing gimmicks for the movie with a few rare gems like Goldeneye (1997) rising above the dross. However, in a small number of cases video games have taken the world suggested by a movie and expanded on it, improved upon it and made it a wholly immersive experience. Alien: Isolation was one of those times.

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After the loss of the Nostromo, Ripley’s daughter (a character alluded to in the director’s cut of Aliens) grows up never knowing what happened to her mother. Now an adult, Amanda Ripley works as an engineer and is approached by a representative of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation because the flight recorder from her mother’s ship has been found. Amanda makes her way to a galactic backwater called Sevastopol, a remote space station owned by the Seegson Corporation, in orbit around the beautifully rendered gas giant KG-348. Of course, an alien has devastated Sevastopol station and Amanda must fight to survive while also trying to discover what became of her mother. The style of the game is not for everyone. The alien is an un-killable threat and the mechanics of the game involve a constant, nerve-ripping, sci-fi version of hide-and-seek.

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However, what makes the game so memorable is how faithful it is to the style and feel of the original Alien movie. In order to accurately recreate the environments Fox gave the developers original production material, including costume photography, concept art, set design, photos, videos, and the original sound effect recordings. All of this creates a retro-science fiction world uncannily like the world created by Scott, O’Bannon and Geiger. And for the nerds, the creature in Alien: Isolation, a free roaming antagonist, includes one of the most inventively programmed AIs in modern gaming. The alien has two ‘brains’ one which operates from a distance and knows where the hero is and another which allows the creature to realistically hunt when close by. All in all, it is a better, more interesting and more faithful addition to the Alien franchise than any of the recent movies.

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The Movie Franchise: The Thing
The Game: The Thing (2002)

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There are three movies which are loosely based on John W Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? (1938). The first of these is the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, masterminded by Howard Hawks. Despite dated special effects The Thing from Another World is a sci-fi/horror classic which lent a lot of imagery and ideas to later, better known movies. The Geiger-counter used to detect the creature could be the motion detectors from Aliens and the image of the scientists pacing out the flying saucer under the ice is iconic – an image, by the way, which was lovingly borrowed by John Carpenter when he made The Thing in 1982. In this, the definitive remake-better-than-the-original movie, Carpenter combined elements of the Howard Hawks film with elements of the original novella and expressed them through some of the most bizarre and frightening visual effects ever shown on screen. Carpenter’s The Thing is tense, claustrophobic, frightening, well-acted and minimalist right down to the score. So great was the impact and the cult appeal of Carpenter’s The Thing that in 2011 we were ‘treated’ to a prequel, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr and also called The Thing. Unfortunately, 2011’s The Thing is a poor half-formed imitation of the first two films. The creative visual effects are replaced with shoddy CGI, the human drama is replaced with bland forgettable characters and the plot is undermined because it slavishly follows the story already told better by Carpenter almost two decades before.

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If only there had been a sequel to Carpenter’s The Thing which was worthy of the original story. Well there was. In 2002, Computer Artworks developed a third person shooter/survival/horror game imaginatively called The Thing (if it ain’t broke…). At the time of its release, with the blessing of John Carpenter and Universal Studios, The Thing game was considered to be the official sequel to the 1982 movie. The game was brilliantly innovative for its time but unfortunately, in terms of gameplay, its reach far exceeded its grasp. It attempted but didn’t quite manage to be an open-world adventure, it tried a variation of early squad-based tactics and it attempted to vary where and when the aliens could appear. The plot carries on from the movie by having a US Marine rescue team arrive and attempt to make sense of what happened to the original research base. The game begins by exploring locations familiar from the 1982 movie before expanding to the Norwegian base where the Thing was first discovered, other mysterious scientific installations and the crash site of the ancient space craft. Throughout the game the protagonist has to use weapons (guns, flamethrowers and explosives) in combination with other equipment (medical equipment and fire extinguishers) to destroy the Thing without completely destroying the base. The Arctic environment is as deadly as the creature. In addition, it is necessary to manage the trust and terror of your team members while remembering that any one of them may turn out to be a Thing. In fact, the game took Carpenter’s story in a far more interesting direction than the dire 2011 prequel.

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The Movie Franchise: Tron
The Game: Tron 2.0 (2003)

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In the modern world where digital/computer animation is the norm (even in movies which would be better off without it) Tron (1982) survives best in the nostalgia centre of our brains. It was a quirky concept at the time. The idea of combining traditional animation with cutting edge computer effects and live action characters to create an adventure inside a computer (you mean those things with the punch cards that do maths?). Nowadays each of us has more computing power in our phone sim-cards than existed in the whole universe in 1982 (that seems like an exaggeration) but the fact remains that Tron is a much more interesting, satisfying, fun and watchable adventure than the more recent sequel Tron: Legacy (2010). Okay, okay…Tron: Legacy isn’t crap. Well, it isn’t Alien Covenant crap. It has spectacular visual effects in comparison to The Thing prequel and has an absolutely fantastic score by Daft Punk. The problem with Tron: Legacy is that it wants to feel new and retro at the same time. In the original Tron all of the visual element were loose metaphors for components or programmes inside a 1982 computer network. However, Tron: Legacy is about creating a ‘world’ inside a computer, a world which because of the plot has nothing to do with the real world any more. It all feels very disconnected, like it was all a dream, and this is a shame when you consider the amazing complexity of computer systems in 2010, which it could have visually represented. Perhaps the makers of Tron: Legacy were trying to distance themselves from the virtual realism of the Matrix movies. Perhaps Garrett Hedlund simply lacks the charisma of a young Jeff Bridges. It is a shame that Tron: Legacy is a less engaging story and has a less detailed world than the original Tron almost two decades earlier.

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Tron 2.0 (2003), developed by Monolith Productions, is a first person shooter/adventure game set in the in-computer world of Tron. The story involves the son of Alan Bradley (writer of the original Tron security programme) called Jet. EMCOM has been taken over by a rival company called FCOM. The corrupt directors of FCOM are planning to use the digitisation technology of Tron to hack into and control computer systems all over the world. The gameplay is linear but there are options about how you develop your character in the form of skills, equipment and weapons. The primary weapon, of course, is the identity disc. At the time of its release it was a direct and official sequel to the 1982 movie but it has since been superseded by Tron: Legacy. Tron 2.0 faithfully reproduces the visual style and feel of the original Tron but where it really excels is in its use of that visual style to represent the world of computing as it existed in 2003: the green, distorted forms of a computer virus battle against the anti-viral forces of the Kernel in a digital war zone. An internet hub is experienced as a bustling city but the inside of a PDA is white and minimalist. Search engines are depicted as cybernetic worms burrowing through code and digitised human hackers zip through the world as datawraiths. Even the detail of character names and the way they speak is suggestive of their place in the computing world. And on top of all that, there’s light-cycle battles. Tron 2.0 takes the ideas suggested by the original movie and extends them, exaggerates them, updates them and weaves them through a new story. Just like any good sequel should.

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And The Point is…

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So what? What is the point to all this? This is supposed to be about movies, not computer games, right?! Movies and games are separate but related forms of art. They can often have an uneasy influence on each other and sometimes that influence is negative. For example, all those sequences in The Hobbit movies where it felt like watching someone else play a computer game, you’d have been better off actually playing Shadow of Mordor (2014). Or the way movies like Alien v Predator (2004) progress through the little threats and finish on the big boss while at the same time being shit-boring – compare this to the computer game Aliens vs. Predator 2 from 2001, which actually keeps you entertained with an interesting and layered story. Conversely, the influence of movies on computer games in the last few decades can be quite positive. There are many games based on movie ideas that incorporate interesting characters, complex narratives and more cinematic visual presentation. Games like LA Noir (2011) and the Uncharted series were designed to feel like taking part in a detective or action movie respectively and they work. There are also some parallel successes like the game Mad Max and the film Mad Max: Fury Road being released in the same year (2015). In this case both releases had a good strong narrative structure and both played perfectly to the strength of their particular medium.

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Games are the fastest growing form of entertainment while cinema is currently under threat. The solution for the movie industry, if any exists, is not to create bland movie after bland movie loosely based on existing game franchises. These never seem to work, either because the movie-makers fail to grasp what made the game exciting in the first place or because it is never as good if you as the viewer can be more involved. But a movie based on a game can be involving if there was an attempt to draw the audience in and make them feel part of the story, just like good and successful games do. If the world of movies could stop being condescending towards the world of games, wrongly treating them as a lesser art form, and recognise that they are about more than just ‘kids pressing buttons’, then maybe there could be an equal footing where both industries could thrive in a creative sense.

The point? There are two points, really. One, is that the three games mentioned above are fun and good to play if you do get the chance to. And two, perhaps there is something for movies to learn from the world of computer games. However, that lesson has not been learnt and it will take a very creative director/producer to understand exactly what that lesson is.

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