Monday, April 19, 2010

War Movies vs. War Video Games

War movies were once super popular with the general male populace. Not anymore. With the prevalence of video games and medal-of-honor-worthy acts of digital heroism the need to watch others do it on screen is less exciting. "The Hurt Locker" will probably be the last war film to win an oscar for at least the next decade. The reason: cinematic war is over. Bring on the virtual ones.

War movies rocked male audiences in the fifties and sixties. As you can imagine they became less popular in the 70s due to "Vietnam Syndrome," but would pick back up in the mid 80s. "Apoclaypse Now" and "the Deer Hunter" came out to in the 70s to critical success but they weren't lauded much financially. It wouldn't be until Oliver Stone's "Platoon" that the war film genre would reach its second coming. "Rambo" which is an action film whose hero was born out of the Vietnam war, helps pave the way for how Americans should think about war and audiences showed up in droves. Reagan helped too. The success of Stone's "Platoon" launched several other Platoon-esque films to come out and catch onto the lucrative post Vietnam movie audiences, "Full Metal Jacket," "Hamburger Hill," "Flight of the Intruder," and many others. Looking back though, I think one of the main reasons guys in my dad's generation liked war movies starring big masculine actors like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood was because we liked to imagine ourselves in their shoes: calm, cool, and badass under pressure--much how you feel when you play a war video game.

Well, enter modern war films: frantic, overly depressing, morbid, and dare say, formulaic. Now, this isn't to say that "Apocalypse Now" isn't all of these and more, it's just, it was really the first to hit all those chords. "Platoon" did too, but it's something we can't seem to get out of: "The anti-war, war movie."

Here's how you make a modern war movie.

1. Take an "every-man character" and insert him in the military. Like you and me, there's some resistance and defiance to the military's way of doing things and we relate to the characters through his subtle acts of rebellion.

2. Through "trial by fire" he learns that the military seems to be alright at preparing him for doing the things he must do, so now he's got to just focus on surviving. He looks at life with new resolve.

3. With new resolve in hand, he and his fellow soldiers use team work and brotherly love to get them through near impossible feats of survival.

4. In that focus on surviving our main character sees the other supporting characters get blown away and slowly learns an important lesson: war sucks.

5. The audience leaves the film feeling less enthusiastic about life as opposed to when they entered.

It's an important lesson. War is a crap thing human beings have wrought upon the earth and upon each other. Movies, need to figure out how to tell a war story without it being the same rehashing of old wounds.

Here's where video games flourish. Video games let us get in the shoes of the main character and fight the war ourselves and with the help of some clever programming, we get to the hero and save the day. Like war movies, war video games don't need much plot to get you to the end of it, you just have to save the day or in some cases, just survive long enough.

Lately I've spent a lot of time watching "The Pacific" on HBO. I loved the series "Band of Brothers" and am so far still on the jury when it comes to "The Pacific." For the most part, it's a harder mini series to get involved with. "Band of Brothers" had character development that has never been seen before in the war movie genre. "The Pacific" has had some development, but it's more like a collective ensemble of average grunts being portrayed through small vignettes of valor. One thing is definitely different though, "The Pacific" is much more realistic than I ever imagined the Pacific War to be because until now the best example I have in my head is John Wayne crawling over rocks in a movie about Iwo Jima. The film is a fairly accurate of the hardships American troops had to go through and is a fair depiction of it that gives a little more of a sense about it than if you were to watch a documentary about it on TV.

I think tomorrow I'll wake up and play some "Call of Duty." It's all the same action minus the guilt. Some say you should feel worthless for playing video games. I don't. I feel worthless for watching some half contrived war movie that makes me feel like I'm doing nothing with my life unless I'm out killing japs and coming down with a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder. When faced with that, I'll take video games any day.

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