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May 04, 2005

Discussion: Sin City

Sin City

I was actually pretty excited about Sin City, but when I actually sat down to watch it, I found it insipid and weak. Basically, my thoughts about this movie were similar to my thoughts on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was so stylized that any bit of interesting content had more or less been polished away. It was entirely about image.

I've read that Rodriguez borrowed so heavily from Frank Miller's comic books in terms of framing and shot selection that he gave Miller attribution as co-director (and even left the Director's Guild over their refusal to recognize Miller as co-director). For me, most of what really annoyed me about the movie was how much it looked like the director had taken a panel by panel approach to directing a comic book -- but the intervening film frames didn't work cohesively with that. It was a little bit like watching the first Spiderman movie in that respect, where he would be fighting and you'd have these great iconic poses, and then a bunch of what looked like backyard wrestling¹.

What's interesting to me about this is how I feel like I can respond, internally, to Roger Ebert's remarks about the movie, which he gave four stars. When he says, "This isn't an adaptation of a comic book, it's like a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids," I feel like I can respond, "Yes, it's so pumped with steroids it hardly feels like it can move at all. The movie feels like it's about to have a heart attack."

I rarely feel this way about game criticism; at least, not the mainstream game criticism that would be akin to Roger Ebert, with his television show and his large weekly readership. Take Grand Theft Auto III, a game which I didn't particularly enjoy. Then read the reviews; I took Gamespot as an example, which gave the game an equivalent of four stars, 9.6 out of 10².

I'm not going to quote line after line, but basically the format is this; I re-read the review before posting to make sure my recollections were correct. There are two types of paragraph in the review.

  • "Feature X is really fun." Facts about Feature X.
  • Facts about Feature Y or Outline of Story Element Z (really just facts in a different form, yet without the cursory topic sentence).

There's so little to work with here. You can say, "I didn't find that fun" but other than that, there's no dialog at all.

There's been a bit of talk lately about the New Game Journalism. The problem I find with New Game Journalism is that we don't really have any old-fashioned criticism to stack it up against. I rather like reading some of this new stuff, but without the good old-fashioned sort of criticism it falls a little flat for me. It's like a conversation between an avant-gardist and a bicycle pump; entertaining for a little while, but a bit one-sided.

One thing that I found really positive about Sin City is the look, which for the most part I found very captivating³, and almost enough to carry the movie on its own terms. It reminded me a lot of Sky Captain in its attention to a certain type of aesthetic, this time inspired by the two-color comic books from which it came.

I had been beginning to get a little disappointed with the "realistic look" games are having all around us these days. After a superbly charming Wind Waker aesthetic, the fine folks at Zelda HQ are turning around and giving us their realistic look. Prince of Persia took a wonderfully fantastic look and then drenched it in black and brown, making it look more like Quake and at the same time draining out a lot of the visual life I loved so much in The Sands of Time.

But then, just when I'm getting all disappointed in how games seem to be visually normalizing to a bleak, boring universe, along comes Psychonauts!, which breathes new life into character and level aesthetics. There are some folks who aren't afraid to have asymmetric characters nor to use the whole color palette!

I'd love to see more of this. In an industry which can bring to life our wildest dreams, why do we limit ourselves increasingly to nightmares?

¹For the perfect example, watch the scene where he fights the Goblin on the balcony. Note too, of course, that the scenes in which he actually is more or less acting as a backyard wrestler are more or less exempt from this criticism.
²Which, don't get me started. Film criticism's 7 or 8 distinctions about how good a movie is are more than enough. Can the average player distinguish between a 9.6 game and a 9.7 game? If not, what's the value in that? I've always preferred OPM's five discs. It's great, it's good, or it's not really worth your trouble.
³One thing I didn't care for was the portrayal of blood spatters, which looked a lot like paintball paint to me, or perhaps latex paint. It was everywhere, in great globs that just didn't look right. It may be accurate to the comic book, but it felt really jarring with the rest of the hard-boiled visual style.

Posted by Brett Douville at May 4, 2005 06:39 AM