Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Sucker Punched: Violence is Boring

The other day I finally got around to watching Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder's latest theatrical action extravaganza, and it was awful. This might not come as a shock to you, but it somewhat surprised me. Certainly, it was full of turgid dialogue, made for questionable gender politics, and had a paper-thin plot, but all these qualities were expected going in. It fails on a much more important level: it fails as an action movie, because it forgets that action isn't about violence, it's about adversity and conflict.

The explosive, genre-tastic, mook-filled action sequences at the heart of Sucker Punch left me bored shitless. It's not that I can't appreciate a good fight on screen; I'm a devoted fan of action and genre movies. To my eyes, a well-choreographed action sequence or battle scene can have all the expressiveness of a classical ballet. If a movie trailer is laced with giant robots battling dragons and explosions followed by cars crashing through plate glass, it's almost guaranteed to get my attention. Despite a budget sufficient to refloat the economy of a small Mediterranean nation, Sucker Punch entirely failed to win me over.

Fundamentally, the phantasmagorical action of the film fails because it is filled with violence while being utterly devoid of adversity. Over the course of four epic scenes, we see the female heroines battling an assortment of random mooks from the Hollywood genre archives, slicing into robots, orks, and clockwork zombies with equal enthusiasm. Yet we never once feel like they are threatened or in any real danger until they return to the grimy real world. There is no John McClane pulling glass shards out of his feet, or Biggs Darklighter getting blown out of the sky in the Death Star trench run, just wave after wave of easily dispatched enemies.

Not only do they fail to show any sort of danger, the action sequences also seem completely inconsequential to the film's main plot. One could strip them from the film and leave a no less coherent narrative. All stories are built from conflicts, internal or external, and each scene should contribute to the contextualisation, escalation or resolution of these conflicts. The turgid computer-generated battles don't serve any of these purposes; they merely serve to exhibit the skill of the cinematographers. You can't fault Snyder's CGI work or his choreography to explain why the scenes fall flat, because they fail on a much deeper level: they fail as scenes in a narrative. The director forgets that violence is boring; conflict and adversity drive stories.

To bring this back to gaming, I think this issue explains why many combat sequences in roleplaying games like D&D can seem lackluster. When there's no serious adversity or danger in the scene, it's hard for any sort of engagement to arise, even from a tactical level. Worse yet, scenes can fall flat when they don't serve to escalate or resolve conflicts. If the characters have nothing to win by defeating their opponents other than mechanical rewards like XP, the game becomes nothing more than a tactical murder simulator. This works only when the game's tactical situation is sufficiently interesting. If instead the characters have a real stake in the fight, if they must overcome adversity to achieve their goals, then the combat can become a real conflict.

1 comment:

  1. It's not the best movie ever made, but I like to view it in a different way. And I blogged about it, so rather than reproduce it here, follow the link.