Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Game of Thrones gets cinematic

We're finally caught up on Game of Thrones.

(No significant spoilers to follow.)

We've navigated the seas of not being able to find a working pirated copy, as well as internet service that was causing constant buffering, and chewed threw about four episodes in two nights, catching us up to the present date. And yes indeed, this season has finally "gotten good."

Not only that, but it's put it all out there in terms of budget.

One thing you can't help but notice if you are a Thrones fan is that it only pretends to be cinematic quality entertainment. I don't mean this as a slight against the show; I merely mean to put my finger on a certainty reality. Namely, if you are producing 10 full hours of programming per season, you simply can't spend as much money as you would on a two-hour movie of the same subject matter. Or, you can, but it has to be stretched out over those 10 hours.

This is why Thrones has always skimped on showing us the battles. I tended to especially notice in the first few seasons, that we would come in right after a battle had ended. Although some might consider battle sequences as an indispensable aspect of a fantasy TV show, the more perceptive of us -- as well as those actually in charge of making the show -- know that battle scenes can be a dime a dozen. We've all seen two armies run at each other and engage in a large skirmish composed entirely of close-combat fighting with swords and axes. It's a bit of a yawn at this point, frankly. Game of Thrones smartly figured out that the character development was what would keep us coming back to this show.

Which makes the occasional battle scene the show does give us all the more enthralling.

At the start of Sunday's episode, "The Watchers on the Wall," I finally noticed the name of a director I was familiar with: Neil Marshall. And even though I didn't like this movie, I immediately recognized Marshall as the director of the 2010 film Centurion, a Michael Fassbender vehicle involving, well, lots of Game of Thrones-type fantasy sword fighting. Except, with the actual sword fighting included.

I knew at that point that we were in for a treat.

Okay, any mild spoilers there may be are in the next paragraph, but I assure you, they are not really all that spoilery.

The battle between the wildlings and the knight's watch at Castle Black was a simply enthralling spectacle. At times I even got a bit of a Helm's Deep vibe from the thing, which is high praise, considering that the Helm's Deep sequence in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a big part of what makes that my favorite Jackson Tolkien movie. That sense of trying to stave off an impossible onslaught from an undefeatable army gave the scene massive stakes, especially when the wildlings are actually inside the castle (how could this happen??), engaging in that aforementioned close combat. How could it have come to this?

And here we see one of the clear advantages of television over the movies. If we had been watching one two-hour movie called Game of Thrones, we wouldn't have a sense of how catastrophic it is that Castle Black has actually been penetrated and is at the risk of falling. But having seen men walking through its seemingly impregnable halls for close to four seasons now, we do indeed think of it as a fortress that's above the fray. In Sunday's episode, "the fray" made its presence felt on Castle Black.

It wasn't just the typical "this guy fights that guy until one of them falls" stuff that made Sunday's episode both so impressive, and such a departure from the usual Thrones template. What really drove the episode home for me was this one audacious shot by Marshall that takes us through the whole battle. It was not without digital aids, of course, but this one shot sweeps through nearly 360 degrees of the battle inside that courtyard, upstairs and downstairs and capturing all the little nooks and crannies where men are clashing. A chill went down my spine as I thought:

"Finally, Game of Thrones really feels like ... a movie."

Interestingly, the other Thrones episode this one reminded me of was "Blackwater" from season 2, the other time I could remember the show pulling out the stops and actually giving us a battle. That episode happens to have been directed by ... Neil Marshall.

Game of Thrones already gives me what television does best, which is to build up our investment in characters over a number of seasons, so their fates feel all the more personal to us. The season finale this Sunday, in fact, figures to place one beloved character's fate in the kind of peril it may require a deus ex machina to get out of. And this is a show that fundamentally despises the deus ex machina ... so I'm a bit on the edge of my seat here.

When it can also feel like a movie ... well, then it's nearly impossible to beat.


Grung_e_Gene said...

I thought the battle scene in Castle Black reminded me of the final stand in the Roman Fort.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah, I can totally see that. Thanks for the comment!