Gamer (2009)

What would it be like if your MMORPG character was a real person? What if, instead of customising your avatar to your tastes, you could pick a human being to dress up, pose, and respond to your every command? What would that do to your interaction with your character? What would it say about you -- and what would it do to them? Neveldine and Taylor's latest movie, Gamer, poses those questions, and while it's not entirely successful at answering them, it's nonetheless a startlingly original movie that makes an angry statement about pretty much everything about contemporary Western culture.

Set in the not-so-distant future, Gamer stars Gerard Butler as Kable, a (wrongly) convicted murderer who has become the star of the new gaming sensation, Slayers. In Slayers, prisoners on death row are given a chance to earn a reprieve by playing through a series of Call of Duty-style battles: their brains, implanted with nanotechnology, allow gamers to control their every move. No "i-con" has ever made it through more than 10 battles, but Kable has survived 27, and is coming dangerously close to achieving the 30 wins he needs to be set free. So far, so Running Man, but Kable - aka John Tilman, an ex-soldier with a wife and kid on the outside - is the least interesting character in the film, his story a straightforward revenge plot on which the rest of the insanity is hung.

See, Slayers isn't the first game in Gamer's world to use real people in place of computer generated avatars. Before Slayers came Society, a not-even-thinly-veiled take on Second Life. Attractive young actors turn over their bodies to players who dress them up in ridiculous costumes, give them explicit user handles, and control their every move, usually using them to fulfil bizarre sexual fantasies. Among the actors working in Society is Kable's wife, Angie, who is played by a grotesquely fat man confined to his chair, constantly slurping some unrecognisable junk food while feeding Angie crude dialogue and making her bend over so he can ogle her scantily-clad backside. From a short scene in some kind of government office, it's clear that working in Society is considered prostitution -- and due to both Angie's job and Kable's incarceration, their child has been removed from her custody and given to a foster family. Because this is a movie, it's not difficult to figure out who that foster family might be: the kid has been adopted by eccentric billionaire Ken Castle, the creator of both Society and Slayers.

Castle, played with relish by Michael C. Hall, isn't content just to have created the media sensation of the age and amassed billions and billions of dollars. His ultimate goal is to enslave the entire human race by having them implanted with the nanotechnology used to control the avatars in his games: the technology rebuilds brain cells, promising adopters a brain that will never succumb to age or illness, but it also turns them into cells in a network that can be used to broadcast information or to receive and respond to commands. Castle's own brain has been modified to turn it into the ultimate transmitter, theoretically putting him in control of everyone else, though it has a flaw that really needed to be further explored in the movie. As he puts it: "I think it, you do it," which isn't as powerful a scenario as it sounds when you realise how little control you sometimes have over your own thoughts, and how open to suggestion our minds are.

Opposing Castle is an organisation calling itself Humanz, a small group of cyberpunk hackers determined to expose Castle and alert the general public to the threat he poses. By contacting Kable's player, the geeky 17-year-old Simon, and convincing him that the only way to win the final battle is to sever the connection between Kable and his controls, allowing him full control of his own actions and freeing him from the "ping" lag between a command being issued and its execution, Humanz set Kable free. But Castle's got a lot invested in making sure Kable never does really walk free, and the rest of the movie is a madcap power struggle between Castle and Kable.

There's a lot to mull over in Gamer, and I suspect a second viewing will reveal even more ideas and details I didn't have time to catch the first time around. Its 95-minute runtime is absolutely jammed with ideas, and while that's refreshing when contrasted with all the dozens of movies coming out every week that don't have any ideas at all, it probably would have benefited from being pared down somewhat. There are several extended scenes set inside Slayers that don't serve much purpose, since we know Kable's always going to triumph. And sure, seeing an ultra-violent computer game made flesh and blood is shocking to begin with, but the way it's shot, all shakycam and rapid zooms, makes it difficult to really know what's going on. The idea of making people play games to earn their survival has been pretty thoroughly explored on film before, and perhaps the more interesting game is Society, which ventures into territory Joss Whedon's Dollhouse can only allude to. What happens when people hand over their free will to someone else? They've volunteered for this, consented to it, even, and yet they're still being forced to do things they'd never truly choose to do. How can the players bring themselves to subject people to the kinds of torture they force their Society avatars into? It's obviously a science-fiction scenario, and yet the way the actors are treated as less than human by their players isn't too far removed from the kind of exploitation that really does go on in the world, all the time.

Gamer also asks us to question the kinds of games we already play: sure, our onscreen avatars aren't really people, but does that mean we're entirely absolved of our actions when we're playing through them? When so much of our interaction with other people occurs online, can we really tell the difference between a person and a character? I'd argue that for the most part, yes, gamers are perfectly capable of telling fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, but Gamer captures some of the unease that surrounds the more sadistic or sexually explicit games out there at the moment.

Unfortunately, Gamer doesn't really have the time or scope to really get its teeth into any of the questions it raises. It comes across as an incredibly angry movie, railing against a lot of different things all at the same time, and while it's still a coherent film, it maybe isn't as powerful as it could be. Still, I don't think there are any other filmmakers out there producing anything even half as interesting and innovative as Neveldine and Taylor's films.

IMDB link

1 comment:

Lucy V said...

Cor I couldn't disagree with you more, Sarah. Whilst the premise is a nice take on the whole killer Big Brother idea, it *barely* differentiates itself from all the others thru that Second Life thing and the whole nanotech stuff, because ultimately it's the craft of this film that really lets it down. It's not even the fact the characters are so underdrawn it's unreal - Gerard as Arnie! Dexter as a souped up Killian! All the women = TARTS! - it's the fact Neveldine/Taylor are so in love with themselves as potential action heroes in their own mind movies, they forget to set up even the most BASIC of information. I mean, the GAMER the title speaks of is not Tilman, it's Simon, but we don't even really meet him until about 30 minutes in! On top of that, Simon lets Tilman *go* so easily - facillitated by the Deus Ex Machina that was the Humanz group - I was left wondering why he was there at all. Then events meander from one event to the next, the overarching goal completely muddled, yet the resolution *so obvious*: Castle has the daughter! Yawn. A complete structural mess in every way.