One the 10 Best Movies I Saw Last Year (and it wasn’t even a movie)

Oscar Fever is a bit muted this year…almost nobody outside of the a lobbyist for the MPAA would argue that this wasn’t an extremely weak year for film. There was no No Country for Old Men or The Departed…there wasn’t even a Dark Knight or Juno. The Academy has made this impression worse by expanding the Best Picture category to 10 nominees. Serves them right…their obvious money grab to double the number of pictures that get the Oscar box-office bounce has ended up highlighting the thinness of the Hollywood slate. I saw and liked both Avatar and The Hurt Locker for what they were, but neither is destined to lead the list of strongest Best Picture winners.

It’s partly with this in mind that I say this…one of the ten best movies I saw last year was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. For those of you that haven’t seen it, the plot revolves around Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter with a noble streak and a way with the women. This time, he’s on a quest to find the lost ships of Marco Polo, and the entrance to Shambala (or Shangri-La). Along the way, he works with a double-crossing fellow hunter and his girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend reporter and her cameraman, and a crusty mentor named Sully. It’s an adventure story, full of cliches and bad dialogue, but also gripping action and likeable characters. The biggest surprise, though, is that it wasn’t released in theaters…you can only find it on Playstation 3.

I’m not a big video gamer…I’ve owned my share of consoles, but frankly, they’ve mostly been shelf decorations. If they were used, it was for a drunken round of Madden or FIFA. The last character/adventure game I’d played was probably The Legend of Zelda on the original Nintendo. I’ve recently gotten a Playstation 3, mostly for the BluRay player and Netflix On-Demand. But while I had it, I figured I should give some games a try. And Uncharted 2 was a revelation, and I truly believe a glimpse of the future.

Now, I know to say it was one of my favorite movies may seem bombastic and misleading. Let me defend myself…first of all, this game is about half gameplay, half short vignettes that tell the story. You get a short movie that furthers the plot, then you have to complete a task, mostly either figuring out a puzzle or killing a bunch of soldiers. The story is not in any way deep…Robert Altman this ain’t. But it is well-plotted and features good characterization that draws you in…Indiana Jones is the biggest influence, but it also has elements of Lost and Cocktail (the Drake/Sully relationship is a dead-ringer for Flanagan/Coughlin). The plotting is shockingly complex…it begins in media res with Drake waking up in a train dangling over a cliff, and the first half alternates between this scene and the activities over the previous months that led to such a dire predicament. And the graphics are amazing…I would honestly put it up against the CGI in Avatar (in 2-D…the 3-D is obviously a whole different thing). I’m talking about fully realized Hi-Def CGI environments like villages in the Himalayas or the center of Istanbul, that at almost any point can be viewed in 360 degrees.

All of which leads me to wonder…is this the future of movies? Now, I’m not talking about film…by that I generally mean a film to be a serious work of art that tries to make a trenchant comment about the world or the human condition; by movie, I mean something that is primarily meant to entertain. I would categorize a film more like a painting or novel…it can be entertaining, but that isn’t the main point, and it normally benefits by reflection and introspection. I’m not suggesting that I’d rather play a There Will Be Blood video game…vignette of Daniel Day-Lewis yelling, then you have to build an oil derrick, scene of Paul Dano preaching, then you have to drink a milkshake. Even action-packed fare like The Godfather or The Silence of the Lambs are better served by immersing yourself in the narrative.

But the next Best Picture will essentially be a filmed video game…everyone knows about Avatar – great technology, awful everything else. And The Hurt Locker, while much better in every non-technological way, is essentially the same as Uncharted 2 in structure. You have a bit of dialogue, then follow the characters through the streets of an exotic city to complete a task; you go back to base for a bit of chatter, then follow the characters out into the city again to complete another task. This isn’t to belittle either movie…but I honestly was more engrossed in the plot of Uncharted 2. At points, I found myself wanting to complete the next battle or puzzle more to see where the story went than anything else…I cared more about the character of Nathan Drake than Jake Sully by a long shot. There’s no way to argue that the plot involving Shambala and the Tree of Life is any more ridiculous than the plots of the Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

I’m not some snob (or at least not completely) that disdains movies…I love Star Wars and Indiana Jones as much as the next guy; I know that Gone with the Wind is arguably more important in movie history than Casablanca. I would hope that Best Picture winners would skew more toward films than movies, but am OK with popularity being a component. But if Hollywood is going to make a choice to value technology over all else, there’s nothing to keep completing media from trumping it in that area. They’ve already largely ceded the character-based drama to television…the most discouraging part about this year is that there isn’t a ready list of great small movies that are being ignored. If movies are going to move more and more to spectacle, they have to be great at one thing over all else: generating that queasy but satisfying roller-coaster feeling in the pit of your stomach. And I felt it more while playing Uncharted 2 than I had at a movie in a long time.

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