1917 is a Video Game Movie and That’s What Makes It Brilliant
1917 | Directed by Sam Mendes | Epic War, Drama, Action, | R | 2 H
by Anton Carpentier
1917 by Sam Mendes breaks new ground in a genre that is frankly played out and tiresome: the war movie. The film follows in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (USA, 2017), but never feels like it’s under its shadow. What 1917 does so brilliantly is that it doesn’t adhere to typical cinematic conventions. On the surface level, it’s the film's “one long take” style, but on another, it’s the clear influence of video game design on the film.
What I mean by this is the film's incredibly familiar game narrative structure. The hero is given a simple task, and the rest of the game follows its mission. For example, 2018’s God of War, in which the protagonist Kratos has the sole mission of bringing his wife’s ashes to the top of a mountain. Additionally, God of War’s camera never cuts, and we see the entire story through the character's perspective as if it was “one long take”. Another example would be a game like Journey in which the player moves towards a glowing mountain. The weird pattern of mountains in video games aside, the level of storytelling is not complex, yet it is a universally approachable task or perhaps better stated as one simple mission.
1917 does something similar to these games in which we are given a fairly undefined protagonist and follow him in an uninterrupted fashion for the entire film. In a way, this a method that Mendes is applying to insert the audience into our protagonists’ shoes. Although the audience lacks agency, a clear departure from video games, the core structure between gaming and 1917 remains. Such as the idea of a mission and the constant and ever-present camera. Even the sequences of the film in which our protagonist encounters seem to be the ideas of a level in a video game, such as running between the lights of the enemy to avoid conflict or sneaking past a group of enemies.
It’s these concepts paired with solid performances, stunning cinematography, and perhaps the best sound mixing I’ve experienced in a theatre that really impressed me. My praise is high, and I do implore people to go see the film in a theatre, but I’m unsure of the film's long-term impact. Will it go down in history as a film that actually learned something from gaming or a film that will be lost to the generic war film genre. I think it’s the former, and like it or not this film will statistically win the best picture category at the Oscars this year… so there is that.