The Tribe is one of the most unusual movies of the summer. Filmed entirely in sign language without subtitles, the film is an experiment in cinematic linguistics that simultaneously recalls silent cinema and William Shatner’s Esperanto movie.
Since nobody talks, it doesn’t really matter that the movie comes from Ukraine, but in pure content terms, The Tribe is an absolute Platonic ideal of the Eastern European movie, a miserycore stew of corrupt institutions and ambient crime and full-frontal teen-hooker sex in grimy sub-basements. I’ve been describing the movie as Scarface for deaf kids, mainly because I badly want everyone I know to see The Tribe. (In pure film nerd terms, it’s more accurate to call The Tribe a remake of Brick by Michael Haneke). Yes, there is an abortion, which is almost as hard to watch as anything that happens in Pixels.
At the beginning of the Tribe, a new kid arrives at a school for the deaf. Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy films this arrival in one long take, the camera following the new kid as he walks into the school, trailing a few feet behind him. Much of the film is shot this way; you never really learn the kid’s name, but boy, you really get to know the back of his head. It’s a steadicam shot — the latest in a 40-year lineage that starts with Bound for Glory, reached a pinnacle with Goodfellas, and then achieved a kind of cosmic nirvana with the 96-minute tracking-shot movie Russian Ark.
As it happens, I watched The Tribe while I was midway through Arkham Knight, a game about Batman driving around Gotham City punching people. On the surface, The Tribe and Arkham Knight have a lot in common. Arkham Knight is a third-person videogame, which means you, as the gamer, experience the game world in two distinct planes: You see Batman, and you also see the world through Batman’s eyes. The camera swirls around Batman, but it never really leaves him. He is the anchor. It’s a huge game, but you mostly experience it in a single type of shot: Batman in the foreground with his back to the “camera,” the world spread out in front of him. Talking pure geometry, this is also the set-up for many of the shots in The Tribe.
And The Tribe shoots in long takes, with very few cuts. Pretty much every scene plays out as one long, unbroken visual. And of course videogames don’t “cut” to different angles. Resident Evil did originally, but Resident Evil 4 made “over-the-shoulder” the de facto camera angle for every mainstream genre. (It’s still unclear if Resident Evil 4 was videogames’ Dylan-goes-electric moment or videogames’ Taylor-Swift-leaves-Nashville moment.) Maybe this simple aesthetic choice is what so many actual “videogame movies” miss; the usually frantic cuts in a movie like Max Payne feel miles away from the Max Payne videogames, which move fluidly from quiet scenes to slow-motion gunfights.
I’ll admit, it’s a stretch to say that The Tribe is a “videogame movie” because some of the shots look like a third-person videogames. (It’s a bit like saying Trainwreck is the spiritual descendant of The Godfather because the human characters all breathe.) But weirdly, the outline of the plot of The Tribe — and the film’s relationship to its central character — is not as far from Arkham Knight as you might think. Both projects utilize its protagonist as the initial wandering guide through a curious world filled with mysterious and villainous figures. Batman and The Kid aren’t really defined by recognizable character traits — unless you consider “walking” a defining character trait. They are the audience surrogate.
Until, suddenly, they aren’t — and if both The Tribe and Arkham Knight send their protagonists into a heart of darkness, both projects also weirdly cycle around to the idea that the darkness is within, not just without. Arkham Knight doesn’t go so far as to suggest that Batman himself is evil (even if there is a little Joker dancing around in his brain), but Knight‘s plot outline is a familiar one. In BioShock, you crash into an underwater city, and set off on a multi-level quest. You don’t really question anything; you’re just doing what the game tells you to do, until the final-act twist reveals that you should have been questioning everything.
“Were you playing as the villain the whole time?” is a question that comes up with some of the decade’s finest games: Shadow of the Colossus and The Last of Us, Far Cry 3 and Braid, the steroidal God of War trilogy and the unfairly overlooked Spec Ops: The Line. This was videogames’ deconstructive decade: The storytelling was simple, but the motivations were much more complicated than they seemed.
Now, “videogame storytelling” is a loaded phrase, since nobody can really agree on the best way for games to tell stories. There was the notion in the late ’90s that games were getting more “cinematic.” I had one of the great pop culture revelations of my lifetime playing Metal Gear Solid for the first time — and that game was the tip of the “cinematic” spear, with realistic-ish human characters speaking dialogue that sounded like words human people might actually say, and with an elaborate “mature” espionage plot that involved corporations and governments and sad speeches about war.
But that game’s legacy has become complicated. Metal Gear Solid ushered in the golden age of cutscenes: The nongame portions of videogames, where characters talked and talked and talked some more. Metal Gear Solid became, essentially, two very different things at once — the gameplay was quiet and cerebral and atmospheric, dependent on patience and observation; the cutscenes were expository, overblown, webbed through with soap operatic sci-fi about clone brothers and blond white kid soldiers.
It’s a double legacy inherited by Assassin’s Creed, a series of games produced by Ubisoft. In every iteration of Assassin’s Creed, you guide your character across the rooftops of artfully-designed history-cities — Rome and Venice, colonial Boston and Revolutionary Paris — and quietly stalk your prey. This is the precise opposite of the experience of watching an Assassin’s Creed game — and to play Assassin’s Creed is to watch, for endless hours, lengthy cutscenes filled with cuckoo bananas metaphysics about time travel and First Human extraterrestrials and fascist Templars. When you play an Assassin’s Creed game, you wish that those cutscenes didn’t exist, and you realize that all of the movies based on videogames are really based on videogame cutscenes. Every videogame movie so far has been made with the flimsy logic that what people really love about videogames is all the parts they don’t get to play.
There is, at this moment, a film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed scheduled for December 2016. The film has been in development for a long time. Michael Fassbender attached himself to the project as a star and a producer back in 2012. At one point, the film was getting released by Sony; it’s currently a 20th Century Fox release, which means Fassbender will be headlining a comic book movie and a videogame movie for Fox in 2016. Ubisoft itself has taken a firm hand in the production of the movie — possibly because Hollywood’s track record with videogame movies is abysmal, possibly because videogame companies don’t like ceding control to anyone. (Microsoft tried to create its own Halo movie — complete with producer Peter Jackson! — but a planned co-production with Universal and Fox fell through.)
I always assumed the Assassin’s Creed movie wouldn’t happen. According to IMDB, the film has a director, a cast, three credited writers, and a production designer, and I still can’t believe it will happen. But if it does, it will cap a big year for videogame movies. Next June brings Warcraft, everyone’s great hope for a not-terrible videogame movie. Unless maybe the great hope is The Angry Birds Movie, currently slated for May 2016. Milla Jovovich is currently hard at work on Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. And I couldn’t tell you what exactly Ratchet & Clank is, but wikipedia says they paid Sylvester Stallone and Rosario Dawson for voice work, so that’s something.
There has not, as of yet, been a good movie based on a videogame. Not even a passable one — not unless you’re willing to cut Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia more slack than they deserve. The Resident Evil franchise has its defenders, but only the second movie really resembles the videogames, and not even the die-hardest of Paul W. S. Anderson acolytes will defend Resident Evil: Apocalypse.
Is it even possible to make a good videogame movie? The dream lives on. Ubisoft would like to follow Assassin’s Creed with Splinter Cell and Watch Dogs. You’ll read at least one news item a year about the Shadow of the Colossus movie. We are not far at all from Dwayne Johnson’s Rampage. And Steven Spielberg was somehow involved in a Halo TV series, before getting somewhat more involved in a big-screen adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Talking to EW last month, Cline suggested that Spielberg’s involvement will assure that the film gets to use all the (heavily trademarked) brands mentioned in the book. “Nobody’s not going to give him Pac-Man,” he said.
Spielberg shouldn’t worry: Pac-Man showed up for Adam Sandler. The box office failure of Pixels has already been absorbed into the narrative of Sandler’s decline. But to me, Pixels‘ failure is the failure of all videogame movies; it confuses love of the experience of videogames with love of the content of videogames. If all people cared about was seeing Pac-Man do things, then Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures would be one of the best-selling videogames of the current console generation. (It’s not, not by a long shot; hell, try finding anyone who’s played any Pac-Man game after Ms. Pac-Man.) Pixels drifts off nostalgia but doesn’t try to figure out what made those early videogames worthy of nostalgia. Imagine if The LEGO Movie was entirely that scene with Will Ferrell and his son: People talking about LEGOs, instead of filmmakers showing you what LEGOs can be.
That’s not just Pixels; that’s every videogame movie. The original Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat films (yes, there are multiples of both) are dumb in every way a movie can be dumb, but the biggest problem is that they’re actually too complicated. Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat are games about people fighting each other, and they became movies about people talking way too much in between brief scenes of fighting happening. It became an insult to say a movie felt like a videogame, but a movie like The Raid actually feels like a videogame, in the sense that it feels like someone took a camera to follow around the characters in Final Fight. There’s no dialogue added in, only the bare hint of a story.
What I’m getting at is that the attempt to add movie-like elements to videogames — backstory, exposition, plot — actually makes them feel less like movies. (I’m always optimistic about unfilmed movies, but imagine what will happen to Assassin’s Creed if they add in more story for the movie.) Consider The Man From Blackwater, a very weird tie-in to Red Dead Redemption that was released with a lot of buzz — it actually aired on Fox, on a Saturday at midnight — and then completely disappeared.
Blackwater was described as a short film directed by John Hillcoat. Well, “short”: It’s half an hour long, and it feels forever longer. Red Dead Redemption is mostly a game about riding around a wild landscape, sometimes getting into gunfights, sometimes herding cattle, sometimes (if you’re so inclined) tying up a lady and putting her on the train tracks. Blackwater does both the most obvious and worst thing: It strings together a bunch of cutscenes.
Weirdly, some of Hillcoat’s actual movies filmed with flesh-and-blood actors feel more videogame-like. His adaptation of The Road feels like a missing level from The Last of Us. The long scenes of Guy Pearce riding through the burnt Outback in The Proposition are almost identical to the long rides you take in Red Dead Redemption. As much as the videogame medium trends toward adolescent insanity—high scores and achievement points, wish-fulfillment invulnerability and addictive feedback loops—it also trends toward observation, and carefully constructed settings. The very best games don’t hold your hand; they teach you how to play them.
Maybe that’s why The Tribe, which is so completely a cinematic experience, feels oddly videogame-like in my memory. Because you don’t quite know what the characters are saying, every scene becomes a mystery. You can follow body language and get an immediate sense for which character is the class bully, but nothing in the main character’s body language prepares you for the decisions he makes in the film’s second half. And the blankness of the main character is the blankness of a videogame protagonist — and you feel somehow responsible for him, which makes his ultimate actions even freakier. (If The Tribe‘s main character ever has a David Lynch dream, it probably looks a lot like Braid.)
This probably sounds like an insane-o rant: “Hey, Fassbender! Your tentpole action film should be like this Ukrainian sign-language abortion romp!” But there are adventurous blockbusters, and smart silly action movies. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity utilized a kind of third-person cinema: Digitally-assisted long takes spinning around Sandra Bullock, following her from one mini-boss challenge to the next. John Wick had the rough plot outline of Ninja Gaiden: Man seeks vengeance for death of father/dog, fights neverending flood in urban environments.
Somewhere in between those movies — with a much smaller budget and much bigger ideas — is The Tribe. And somewhere inside of The Tribe, there’s a lesson for anyone trying to make a wildly popular videogame into a movie that isn’t terrible: Less really can be more.
How can Hollywood make a better videogame movie? And which videogame deserves to be made into a movie? (Twisted Metal, duh.) Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.