Phil Concannon watches Late Shift and ponders the idea of the interactive movie and watching with your phone switched on.
Remember Doom? No, not the video game, but the Dwayne Johnson-starring 2005 film directed by cinematographer-turned-hack Andrzej Bartkowiak? There’s no particular reason why you would recall that entry in the ignominious history of cinematic adaptations of video games, but you might remember the debate it sparked. When Roger Ebert stated that video games cannot be art he invited a furious response from gamers who insisted that he was dismissing a medium he knew nothing about. Five years later, when Ebert returned to the subject in response to a TED talk given by game producer Kellee Santiago, he wrote:
“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
There’s probably no real answer to this question, art is where you find it, but the debate continues and the lines continue to blur. With video games employing more sophisticated and ambitious storytelling techniques and increasingly cinematic visuals, games such as the acclaimed 2013 release The Last of Us are now hailed for their emotional content as much as their gameplay virtues. But if video games are becoming more like movies, what happens when things go the other way? If a movie takes on the virtues of a game, does it no longer fit Ebert’s definition of art?
Late Shift is a film that gives us the opportunity to take control of the main character. At numerous points in the narrative the film’s protagonist Matt (Joe Sowerbutts) will have to make a decision, but it’s the viewer who makes that decision for him. As the film begins we must decide whether Matt should push his way off the bus or be polite and let others off first, or if he should help a lost tourist and risk missing his tube (echoes of Blind Chance and Sliding Doors) but as the film progresses and the hapless Matt finds himself drawn into a plot to steal a priceless Chinese artefact, the choices we make take on a life-or-death importance.
This idea in itself is not new. At the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, Czechoslovakia was represented by Kinoautomat, a groundbreaking experiment in film narrative. Conceived by Radúz Činčera, the film played out in a series of individual sequences, each of which ended with the audience pressing one of the two buttons on their handset to decide what happens next. Having seen and enjoyed Kinoautomat at the NFT in 2006 it was useful to compare it to Late Shift, which is inevitably a much slicker presentation of the same idea. While Kinoautomat required an onstage MC to link between sections and entertain the audience as the votes were tabulated and the next reel prepared, Late Shift moves seamlessly from one scene to the next, our decisions instantly having an impact on the constantly evolving storyline.
Late Shift was essentially designed as a proof of concept for CtrlMovie, a new app that promises complete control over films specially produced for the platform, and while the idea of using a phone in the cinema is normally anathema to me, the simple black design of the app makes it acceptably unintrusive. Buttons offering choices appear on both the small and big screen simultaneously, and viewers have a couple of seconds to pick one before seeing how it plays out. Some of these decision points have little bearing on the overall shape of the narrative and reveal the limitations of the idea; as Dr Christopher Hales wrote in his study of Kinoautomat: “The often raised criticism is that making choices in an interactive narrative made from pre-made segments is hardly more sophisticated than pressing the required combination of buttons on a hot-drink machine.” It was a little frustrating that telling Matt to make a run for it from gun-toting crooks resulted in him getting a few yards away before being caught, but other choices seemed to have wider implications, with our decision to walk away from the weeping May-Ling (Haruka Abe) instead of offering comfort (What a bastard we turned this guy into!) marking a major shift in the narrative.
In the post-film Q&A, director Tobias Weber and writer Michael Robert Johnson confirmed that this choice meant we didn’t see whole sequences involving May-Ling as well as a number of additional locations, and that Late Shift can run for anything between 70 and 90 minutes depending on the path followed by the user. So Late Shift should certainly possess some replay value, and indeed it seems ultimately designed for individual players as a phone or tablet app, where they can try different combinations of decisions and explore all of the possible narratives, but it was a lot of fun to watch with a big crowd. One particular highlight was the disappointed groan that arose from half of the audience at our screening when we decided that Matt shouldn’t shoot the man he was holding a gun on, and the event took on the air of a social experiment as we waited to see how our story would end. One of the jokes in Kinoautomat was that all of the narrative choices led to the same disappointing end for the film’s main character – a move intended by Činčera as a comment on the illusion of democracy – but Late Shift has seven possible endings. The one we chose, we were subsequently informed, was the second worst in terms of the characters’ fates. It ain’t easy playing God.
By an odd coincidence, I watched Late Shift on the same weekend that I saw Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, another experiment in narrative and form that involves an innocent character getting caught up in a heist. Shot in a single 135-minute take, the film is designed to immerse you in the main character’s experience, and I found that it succeeded to an incredible degree. I felt a pit-of-the-stomach tension during the key sequences that was accentuated by the immediacy and unusual rhythms of the film; I was trapped in there with these frantic, terrified characters, with no idea what was going to happen next and with no way of stopping it, and I think this experience gets at the key stumbling block with Late Shift and CtrlMovie. As much as I enjoyed the novelty of the experience, I never felt particularly involved in the onscreen drama, and I wonder how much impact a narrative can possess if you know that you can simply try it again a different way to achieve a different result. I go to the cinema to relinquish control and to experience someone else’s story, someone else’s vision.
CtrlMovie is in its early stages and, according to producer Kurban Kassam, there are big things in store. Steven Soderbergh has apparently taken an interest in the technology and the Sundance Film Festival is exploring the possibility of using it in their screenwriter labs, and during the Q&A the filmmakers talked up the potential for making more subtle and emotional works using the same technique as it continues to develop; so who knows where it may lead? But ultimately, Late Shift did feel a little too much like playing a video game for me, and of the two films I saw that weekend, it was the inexorability of Victoria rather than the interactivity of Late Shift that truly excited, gripped and moved me. Until CtrlMovie can replicate that kind of immersion and emotional involvement, I’m happy to continue experiencing cinema the old-fashioned way; just another viewer, with no control over what I’m watching, and with my phone switched off.
Late Shift is available to download via iTunes.