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How videogames are changing the action movie

Something strange happens with the camera at the start of Spectre (2015). The movie opens with a wide view of an elaborate Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. We’re then shown a villain before focusing on James Bond, who starts to follow this villain. Bond and a woman then go into a hotel and he leaves her by exiting through a window onto the rooftop, where he prepares to shoot his target. It’s a standard set-up for a Bond film, but throughout all of this, the camera doesn’t seem to cut away, not once. The entire opening is presented as if it’s a single seamless shot (it’s actually several).

This opening represents a real reversal in style from the last few Bond films. In those, action and chase scenes are typically afforded hyperactive editing and camera movements, as if the camera had been tossed down a staircase. Spectre‘s long opening shot abandons this established school of editing. It belongs to a newer style of action filmmaking that’s been building on the fringes for the past decade and has now unequivocally hit the mainstream.

Spectre‘s opening shot should also be familiar to anyone who’s played a third-person videogame. The perspective is commonplace, the camera closely tracking the main character, often but not always from behind. And, in Spectre, as in almost any game, the camera itself is a gliding, mobile presence that remains unblinking in its focus. It’s evidence in the case that videogames have started showing a strong influence on cinematography beyond goofier incarnations such as CGI, tie-ins, or critically derided adaptations. Instead, the movies leading this charge across mediums are rooted in physicality and often adored by cineastes.

Recent action movies like The Raid: Redemption (2011), John Wick (2014), and Snowpiercer (2013), among others, have mimicked the visual and in some cases structural form of videogames. Some of them, like Spectre, have shown this influence through conspicuous long takes, while other hallmarks of the style include smooth, minimally obtrusive editing, strong focus on a single protagonist’s point of view, and camerawork that remains stable despite its mobility. These films have gained prominence and won critical praise not just for their style, but also for what it represents: an alternative to the currently dominant mode of action filmmaking, which Matthias Stork dubbed “chaos cinema” in a video essay for Indiewire.

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You may not recognize the term, but if you’ve been to the multiplex over the summer in the last ten years, you’ve almost certainly encountered chaos cinema. Think Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or literally anything directed by Tony Scott and especially Michael Bay. The camera seems less fluid in these movies than it does epileptic. The camera often spins in circles around its characters, with its movements cut by an endless, hyperactive rhythm of edits. Quick cuts and short shots don’t necessarily guarantee incomprehensibility, but that’s often the result for action scenes in these movies. Take Christopher Nolan’s chaos cinema standard bearer The Dark Knight (2008). The hero Batman is introduced to the audience interrupting a three-way gunfight in a parking garage. Batman’s arrival is framed a surprise, which is easy to orchestrate since we never have a clear sense of where most of the other characters are, or even how many of them there are. Despite being set mostly on a single open surface, the rapid editing that kicks in once the shooting starts means the audience never has an obvious sense of the characters’ location or movements, and the camera switches its focus quickly from one character to another.

an alternative to the currently dominant mode of action filmmaking

By contrast, the action movies that have borrowed their style from games prioritize physical clarity, rarely obscuring the movements of their characters. Around the time critics started noting the emergence of chaos cinema among blockbusters, a number of movies pushing towards arthouse or cult audiences made a splash due to their own showy approach to violence, centered around long takes. Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 film Oldboy was among the first of these. Oldboy arrived on American shores in 2004 as part of a wave of sleek new Korean films. Its assured style and revenger’s tragedy plot won it the Grand Prix at Cannes that year. Meanwhile, its presentation of violence—especially one standout single-take action scene—has made it a perennial favorite of action fans. Over the course of this one celebrated shot, actor Choi Min-sik decimates a hallway full of thugs that vastly outnumber him, continuing even with a knife stuck in his back. Sure, the rest of the film attempts to sour viewers on violence and revenge, but this scene revels in its action. Visually, it achieves this by mimicking the side-on view of beat ‘em ups like Streets of Rage (1991), making use of the singular wide angle to let us take in the entirety of the scene; a single man against an armed mob.

Prachya Pinkaew’s The Protector (2005) moved that kind of action scene into 3D the following year. Gleefully lacking any of Oldboy‘s moral complexity, the Thai action film has a plot that’s best summarized by the guy on his phone coming out of the movie theater ahead of me: “This dude has his elephant stolen and he has to kick all kinds of ass to get it back.” In the course of trying to find his elephant, Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa barges into a restaurant-cum-brothel. Camera held firmly to his back, he proceeds to head up the stairs, viciously dispatching anyone in his way as the camera spins along unblinking in his wake. Beyond the camerawork, the scene itself follows the logic of basic level design: start at the bottom, work your way up, defeating anything that tries to stop you. It’s a set-up reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s unfinished Game of Death (1972), whose simple premise, memorable style, and series of one-on-one fights would make it a major influence on fighting games and brawlers.

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With 2006 came Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron’s masterfully directed sci-fi film. While not an action film (the protagonist, played by Clive Owen, spends most of his time running away), the movie features several extended takes of its characters scrambling to escape intense violence. Children of Men depicts a future thrown into global chaos due to humanity’s unexplained inability to reproduce, and the film’s style reflects the idea of pervasive violence. Long takes are used to maintain a running level of suspense, the rarity of cuts reinforcing the idea that there’s no escape from the violent state of the world. Particularly during an anti-government uprising toward the end of the film, the camera follows behind its main characters while occasionally turning away from them to demonstrate that the situation they’re caught in extends far beyond just them. Watching it upon its release reminded me of playing through particularly busy, tense portions of first-person shooters like Half-Life 2 (2004) or the Call of Duty series (starting 2003), both of which took pains to make the player feel like she was one person taking part in a larger struggle. Children of Men required a similar endurance from its viewer.

It’s easy to forget now, but the visual language of 3D games has only recently been established. This was more of a problem with third-person games than first-person ones. Even an 8-bit game like Sweet Home (1989) could switch from a top-down 2D view of its characters to a frontal view of the monsters they encountered and expect players to assume that they were now seeing what the characters saw. For 3D games, though, the third person perspective was more complicated. The first Resident Evil (1996), a 3D third-person game inspired by Sweet Home, relied on static shots of rooms with no controllable camera movement. The series eventually switched to a behind-the-character perspective with Resident Evil 4 in 2005. Notably, the games that could best make players feel like they were intuitively and effectively moving through 3D space were often described in terms of movies. Even a game like Half-Life 2, which was played entirely from the first-person perspective with no cutscenes, attracted constant movie comparisons. Reviews from the time mentioned its “cinematic moments,” “cinematic presentation,” “cinematic set pieces,” and “filmic ambition.”

directors can express a game-like sense of seamlessness without one-take shots

As the vernacular was established around 3D games, with certain camera styles and control schemes solidifying as genres,  more filmmakers were picking up on the value of bringing the unique language of videogames to amplify the impact of their action scenes. The 2005 Doom adaptation included several action scenes shot almost jarringly from the first-person perspective, distinguishing an otherwise forgettable movie. The Crank films, meanwhile, featured a hyperactive style that was the complete opposite of a film like Children of Men—in Crank 2 (2009) there’s literally a title card between cuts that says “9 seconds later”but was frantic enough in its individual beats for it to play out like a non-stop five-star crime spree in Grand Theft Auto. The rise of this style in movies was enabled by more than the zeitgeist, with advances in cinematic technology also playing a role. Digital video and the Steadicam reduced the cost of filming and enabled greater camera mobility. As early as 1992, John Woo staged an extended single-take action scene in Hard-Boiled, but no wave of imitators sprang up in its wake. Now, long-take action scenes seem to appear regularly.

More recent films have also shown that directors can express a game-like sense of seamlessness without one-take shots. 2011’s The Raid: Redemption coupled tight, brutal fight choreography with editing meant to reveal the action smoothly and comprehensively. Watching its characters fight their way through the film’s dingy hallways feels a world apart from the overcharged editing of The Dark Knight. The action scenes make use of some quick cuts, but the camera usually remains focused on a single character at a time. When the camera does cut, it’s often to follow the character’s movements or gaze, making the editing less obvious. In addition, The Raid once again featured that level design-like setup of working your way up from the bottom of a building to defeat the nemesis at the top.

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John Wick also boasted a clear use of space and smooth, choreographed sense of action; watching scenes from it or The Raid sometimes feels like seeing someone accomplish a speed run through videogame fight scenes with real actors. John Hyams’ 2012 surprise cult favorite Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning uses strobe lights, cryptic dialogue, and a droning soundtrack to frame the action movie as a fever dream, but still presents its fights with similar lucidity and continuity. Bong Joon-Ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer took the game-like environmental focus the furthest, set entirely on a train with a rebellion trying to move from the back to the front, often framed yet again as left to right. In an interview with Under the Radar, Bong disavowed any direct videogame influences, but noted that Snowpiercer‘s progressive structure and sense of perspective limited to its protagonist are similar to games.

films drawing their style from videogames embodies an alternative

Both fans and movie studios eager to market their films have drawn parallels between these movies and games. You can download John Wick as a character for Payday 2, play an 8-bit fan tribute to the Oldboy tracking shot, or watch The Protector‘s single-shot fight scene dubbed with videogame audio. These game-like movies have also drawn positive reviews, especially for how they broke with the mainstream mode of action filmmaking. John Wick has not one but two reviews in The Atlantic lauding it for not being another “lazily cut shaky-cam action movie,” Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri praises Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning for its “spatial logic that’s all but disappeared from action moviemaking,” and The Guardian declares that The Raid: Redemptionputs western action movies to shame.”

The kinetic editing of chaos cinema may have been exciting, but a decade-plus of Fast & Furious and Transformers movies has been more than enough to create a critical backlash to the style. If the original joy of the action movie was bodies in motion—per the common comparison of kung fu films to musicals—then chaos cinema has erased that in favor of nothing more than sound and fury. The proliferation of films drawing their style from videogames embodies an alternative. Which brings us back to that opening in Spectre. It felt like a new statement of purpose for the Bond series, and it isn’t the only film indicating that a style once relegated to smaller cult movies is now having a wider effect. Netflix’s series Daredevil (2015) channeled Oldboy with its own one-take action scene set in yet another dingy hallway. Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015), meanwhile, presents one of its critical boxing scenes as a long, uncut take. When film critics say that movies resemble videogames, it’s usually a curmudgeonly complaint. It shouldn’t be. Instead, with their focus on nimble achievement, spacing, and smooth, comprehensible visuals, games have brought the action movie back to its roots. Formally speaking, action movies really are coming to be more like videogames. They’re all the better for it.