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Posted at 2:35 PM ET, 08/10/2009

The Riff: Why 'G.I. Joe' Could Be a 'Game'-Changer

By Michael Cavna


Paramount refused to screen "G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra" for most mainstream movie critics and now I have a pretty good idea why. "G.I. Joe" is not a movie.

Oh, "G.I. Joe" has all the recognizable traditional markings of a movie -- from "actors" (Dennis Quaid is one of the few who's given enough hammy dialogue to chew a little scenery, deliciously so) to nods to "character development" and backstory -- but really, that is only camouflage. The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise may consist of good to great movies based on a ride, but "Joe" (a comic based on a toy) IS a ride. The breakneck movie is more enjoyable if you stop thinking of it as a movie (we can only pretend to care about even a single character here) and appreciate it for what it is: a $175 million visual videogame (sans joystick).

Perhaps like no movie since "Tron" (the '80s film that will be revisited on big screens next year) has a major film felt like such a videogame ride -- yet the great Jeff Bridges still was given time to emote in "Tron." "G.I. Joe" has minor elements of "Star Wars" and a few scenes are "Top Gun"-on-steroids, but mostly, the onslaught is like one gaming field after another that makes "Terminator" seems like Merchant/Ivory. It's devoid of emotion, and as one character says early on, illuminating her worldview: We're not dealing in emotions here. And that's perfectly fine as empty popcorn entertainment -- because that's exactly what it aspires to be.

Obviously, the masses don't require depth if the hyperspeed ride is cool enough -- for the opening weekend at least. Worldwide box office exceeded $100 million, and "Joe" grossed more than $55 million in North America. Call it a case of "Wii, the People."

On the heels of "Transformers" -- which received such scathing early reviews -- maybe this summer eventually will prove to be a game-changer. This is the season that a few studios may show that the need for character development in a successful sci-fi actioner is at all-time low. A breakneck pace and tsunamis of visual CGI are apparently their own near-indestructible material if expertly deployed -- and what's different is that these films now seriously threaten the box office records of a Spidey, Darth Vader or a Dark Knight, let alone a lethal iceberg (all films or franchises that made character development a compelling element). We've blasted through a new threshhold, and one of the next big tests will be Roland Emmerich's "2012," which in 20 minutes of footage screened at San Diego Comic-Con appeared to be a nonstop CGI-gasm of apolcalyptic effects -- but the overall effect bordered on campy.

For now: "G.I.," we hardly know ye, and yet -- like much of our social networking and cable news -- we seem to prefer it that way. Motto: Keep movin' -- there's only something to see here.

By Michael Cavna  | August 10, 2009; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  Superheroes, The Riffs  
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One of the oddities of American society is that even moronic things are viewed as "good", as long as they make boatloads of money. However, measuring the quality of a movie by the amount of money it can rake in is still a stupid idea, because inflation keeps warping the playing field upward. Even the trashiest Hollywood rejects will gross more today than the Oscar winners of a generation ago.

A more sensible (but alas unverifiable) method would be to count the number of PEOPLE who go to see the movie.

Posted by: kilby | August 10, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure how this thing can essentially be a video game, when the audience cannot participate or affect what happens on-screen in any meaningful way. As for why it resembles a Wii game as opposed to something on any other system (I would hope its visuals would be more akin to one of the high-power platforms), I'm even more in the dark.
As it stands, a vapid special-effects shooter made a buttload at the box office despite critical disdain, which sounds more like business as usual than a game-changer.

Posted by: nakedfoul | August 10, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

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