They have a lot, but they ain’t got what the movies got

The more the next generation of games and TV series grab our attention, the more they confirm the power of cinema

Skydiving into Los Santos: the open-world experience of Grand Theft Auto V is remarkable - but can it compare to watching a movie?

Skydiving into Los Santos: the open-world experience of Grand Theft Auto V is remarkable - but can it compare to watching a movie?

Fri, Oct 4, 2013, 14:25

If there’s a vowel in the month, then it must be time to wonder if the movies are still any sort of viable medium. Two recent phenomena prompt us to give this poor old nag another half-hearted flogging.

Three weeks ago, Grand Theft Auto V, the latest episode in the slaying-and-driving game franchise, had the sort of opening weekend that would cause even James Cameron’s heart to flutter. In just one day the game made more money than all but one of this year’s movies (Iron Man 3) garnered in their entire theatrical runs.

Then, last week, everybody began droning on about some telly thing called Breaking Bad. Blah, blah, blah. All the best work in filmed drama is being done on TV. Blah, blah, blah. If George Eliot were around today, she’d be writing Mad Men. Blah, blah, blah.

I am not here to say all this is so much hooey. It’s been 350 years since I got through a day without having to explain that I have never caught a second of Breaking Bad. But I have seen some telly and it was bloody good stuff. Captain Mainwaring is awfully funny. Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss, you really are an old fat, furry catpuss. Aww!

Where was I? Oh yes. One must admit that the serial TV drama has, in recent years, achieved astonishing levels of intricacy and emotional resonance. When, to stop people pressing me into corners and expressing mock astonishment at my lack of exposure to The Wire (you’d think I’d just admitted to still wearing nappies), I grudgingly grabbed hold of a boxed set. I had to admit that David Simon had stretched the possibilities of the TV drama. He was doing things that cinema couldn’t do: allow storylines to develop over massive time frames.

Being interactive, videogames have always done something that cinema can’t do. Indeed, they are such different beasts, it seems slightly perverse to compare the two. Might we as well compare films and golf? Are films being challenged by cookery?

Play the excellent Grand Theft Auto V for a moment, however, and you will note that the games designers themselves find it hard to escape Hollywood. Just note how, by pressing the “b” button, the game will offer you a “cinematic view”. Grand Theft Auto V seems slightly ashamed that it’s not a film. For all that, we are still comparing horses with cement mixers.

Moreover, the more TV series assert their ability to do things that “cinema can’t do”, the more they confirm the uniqueness of the older medium. TV has moved so far from the single quantum of drama – the self-contained episode – that film’s stubborn determination to keep to one neat arc seems almost innovative.

More importantly, what TV can never quite catch is the sense of spectacle that attends cinematic exhibition. Americans call cinemas “theatres”, you know. They’re onto something.

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