Machinima attempts to turn one medium -- video games -- into another -- cinema. Many video games can be recorded, so that players can review their own adventures, or pass them along to friends; combine edited versions of these game recordings with amusing voice-overs or music, and you have a simple digital movie. By and large, machinima movies are done for humor or to tell action stories closely related to the game source material, and appealed primarily to people who were familiar with the games in question.
But machinima may finally have had its breakout moment with a fascinating short film called "The French Democracy." Using a game called "The Movies," French machinima-maker Koulamata tells the story of three young men in Paris who end up taking part in the recent riots. All three suffer different kinds of indignities at the hands of French society, triggering their decisions to fight back; the movie is very clearly on the side of the rioters. Whether or not one accepts the political perspective of Koulamata, he has done something truly remarkable: he has taken computer game characters and told a story with clear social relevance, demonstrating that machinima has the potential to be much more than a medium for dancing orcs and artistically-exploding jeeps.
Koulamata is aided, in part, by his chosen software. The Movies, ostensibly a linear role-playing game set in Hollywood, includes a section allowing players to create their own stories using the game's characters and sets. This explains some of the oddities of The French Democracy, such as the "electric power station" looking like an old west shack (complete with horse), or the Parisian skyline including the Empire State Building. Koulamata is able to tell a good story despite these limitations. Undoubtedly, future applications will make possible a wider variety of settings and characters.
In the mainstream movie industry, computer graphics are generally used to show things that can't easily be accomplished otherwise. A mainstream version of The French Democracy could easily have been made with human actors and location shots, but it would have required at least a half-dozen performers and crew. Machinima allows movies to be made entirely by a single person.
We know that movies can be compelling political and social works. But unlike writing, music, or most other forms of visual art, movies require the work of teams of people. What machinima has the potential to do is to open up politically- and socially-meaningful filmmaking to individuals. As the tools get more powerful, and the characters and sets more expressive, we will certainly see more movies like The French Democracy. I can't wait.