Call of Duty, Act of Valor, Waste of Time.

I hate when people make judgments about movies they haven’t seen based on hearsay. And I’m as guilty of this as the next person, but I try to avoid doing it. But sometimes there are movies you can just tell you won’t like after just seeing the trailer, or reading the advance publicity.

I haven’t seen this new movie Act of Valor yet, so I want to make it clear that what I’m talking about here isn’t what I think of the movie, but rather my suspicions about it based on what I’ve been reading about it.

If you haven’t heard, the movie is notable because it stars active-duty Navy SEALs, and because they apparently used real ammunition in filming it. The critical consensus seems to be that it’s basically a bunch of action sequences without any interesting characters, or even much of a plot. Roger Ebert says:

Much of the movie consists of pure action, punctuated by terse dialogue and few subtleties. We don’t get to know the characters as individuals, they don’t have personality traits, they have no back stories, they don’t speak in colorful dialogue, and after the movie you’d find yourself describing events but not people.

Like I said, I haven’t seen the movie, so what I’m about to say is a suspicion, not a fact, but it seems likely. Mr. Ebert in particular, in the amazingly unlikely event that he reads this, may find what I have to say of interest, given some of his previous comments.

Reading about this movie reminded me a lot of reading about the video game Black. Black is a video game that was designed around combat sequences and making realistic facsimiles of weapons, and the story was put in as afterthought. Needless to say, it is not going to be remembered as one of the great works of our civilization. I’m not sure how well it sold, but I know that for a time it seemed like there were tons of copies of it floating around in game stores.

The other thing I thought of was the game series Call of Duty. It is also a military -themed shooting game with minimal character development and outrageous stories serving as vehicles for ridiculous action scenes, and a multiplayer mode where players’ avatars run around shooting each other. Its latest installment is also “the biggest entertainment launch of all time”, meaning more it is more lucrative than any movie release. And the previous holder of that record was the previous Call of Duty installment.

Even the name Act of Valor reminds one of Call of Duty. The movie sounds to me like an attempt by Hollywood to get in on the most successful genre of video games. And indeed, they have been promoting it with the game Battlefield 3. Even the style of marketing reminds me of how games are marketed–they keep going on about using live ammunition, like that makes it more realistic or something. Game developers will sometimes say things like “yes, we based this virtual machine gun on the feel of firing a real machine gun”, as if to show how realistic it all is, and then produce a game where you can fire the thing continuously without it overheating. (Usually while leaping from one airplane to another mid-air or something similarly impossible.)

And, sure enough, Ebert contrasts Act of Valor with a documentary film about war, Hell and Back Again:

“Act of Valor” is gift-wrapped in patriotism. It was once intended as a recruitment film, and that’s how it plays. The action scenes are harrowing but exciting. Lots of explosions and special effects. At the end, there is a full-dress military funeral, honoring three generations of warriors. The real action scenes in “Hell and Back Again” don’t play like an action movie.

Not surprising.

I’d have to say, this is not how I want video games to prove they are the equal of movies as an art form–by bringing movies down to the level of the simple-minded action game.

Maybe I’m misjudging Act of Valor. Maybe I’ll even go see it to find out. But as of now, it sounds to me like they wasted a bunch of Navy SEALs’ time to make something that isn’t quite as interesting as your typical video game.

P.S. I forget where, but somewhere on this blog there’s a post where loyal reader P.M. Prescott commented that the bestselling video game of 2011 outperformed the top-selling movie. So, thanks to him for that bit of info. I’ll post it if I can find it.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?