Gamer: The Film: The Review

This is the second in a five part series on films and their portrayal of video games and their players. Last time I covered Scott Pilgrim vs the World and this time around it is the Gerard Butler-starring masterpiece Gamer.

Over at Electron Dance the term “Gerard Butler syndrome” was coined after a discussion about his films emerged in a comments thread. The expression was used to describe a preview that bears little resemblance to the film it is supposed to be advertising, which is something that Gamer unsurprisingly suffers from.

The preview makes it look like a combination of a bad Sylvester Stallone film and Lawnmower Man. It’s all snazzy fast cuts between violence and high-tech porn with little in the way of dialogue. Okay, most of that is sort-of true but the sum of its parts ends up being greater than you might expect (although not by much).

Jeff Fahey has aged really well, I thought he’d be nose deep in cocaine and hookers by now

Gamer is violent but the portrayal of this violence is a cautionary tale on the desensitisation that comes with the way in which technology distances us from humanity and absolves us of moral responsibility with the anonymity it can afford us. To achieve this, at the outset, it requires a lot of fast cuts and has to present high-tech paraphernalia in a fetishistic manner.

In Gamer the world (America) has become more and more jaded; unemployment has risen and has resulted in the crime rate going up. The economy is falling apart and the government barely maintains control.

Enter the Gates/Zuckerberg-alike Ken Castle, played by Michael C. Hall (him what was Dexter in the TV series Dexter). Castle creates ‘Society’, a social networking game similar to Second Life except that the avatars people control are not digitally generated but real people who have volunteered to have their bodies manipulated for money. The film demonstrates that Society players log in and indulge in whatever social or sexual interactions they feel like.

This seems to involve wearing terrible clothes while doing it

Then Castle creates Slayers, which is essentially the video game known as CounterStrike – but head shots are literally fatal.

As the audience you follow Gerard running through a ridiculous scenario. Appendages explode, arteries are ruptured, bones shatter – even with the amount of carnage onscreen you always feel as though the film is deliberately, disconcertingly, veering between atrocity and cartoon. This is made all the more alarming for its similarity to a recent advertisement for a popular game.

The opening forty minutes, for all its explosions and MTV editing, are actually an interesting modern take on classics like Soylent Green and Rollerball. People are assets to be discarded when they no longer have utility, and the sport is more about politics than the triumph of human spirit. This extends to the point where the higher-ups do not want the little man to succeed for fear of offering hope.

Gamer also made me think about the way I casually mow down enemies in any number of games and how dispassionate I am about it. There is one extreme scene where Gerard is running through a dance floor littered with Society drones. His pursuers open fire and cause considerable collateral damage. The milling crowds continue their copulating and frolicking, being as they controlled by an audience who do not view this scene as real.

It makes me sad that most people will understand this reference

Unfortunately the film is unable to carry on in this fashion and collapses into a the typical American action flick.

It is sad how Hollywood is no longer comfortable with delving into ugly truths as it did in the 70s. The scarier and more realistic scenario of how Society and Slayers came to prominence would have been to portray it as a conglomeration of corporations and institutions with tiers upon tiers of incompetent, complacent and greedy individuals all colluding in making this ugly future possible. With each of them so invested in maintaining the status quo that killing one of them would have only resulted in two more replacing him, like the mythical Hydra.

This downer is not something Gamer can handle. In place of this they turn Ken Castle into a pantomime villain who plots world domination with his powers of mind control. No convoluted conspiracy that mirrors big business mentality – just Michael C. Hall twiddling his moustache and cackling.

There is only a third of a film worth watching in Gamer. But the way that it portrays gamers and games is pretty spot on. For example, the kid that controls Gerard through each Slayers match is a cocky teenager who has more money than he knows what to do with.

The way he is courted by all and sundry while still living with his parents is pretty believable when you see the average pro StarCraft player in South Korea. The same can be said of the strange attachment/ownership this player develops for Butler. It echoes my own feelings towards my Borderlands avatar, except my Borderlands character isn’t a living breathing person.

Another accurate but altogether less appealing portrait of gamers is that of one of the Society players we are introduced to. He is obese, confined to a wheelchair and gets his kicks by logging in as a woman and indulging in a series of sexual acts that become ever more excessive. His antics had me shifting in my seat uncomfortably but I can’t deny that there are 4chan users out there that would fit his bill in a cholesterol-afflicted heartbeat.

Gamer is alright and is entertaining for what it is. Its chances to be a clever film are squandered and in the end it can’t live up to the standard of dystopian visions cast by Brazil, Blade Runner or even Omega Man. Instead it settles for letting the audience leave the cinema/living room with the illusion that everything can be solved with a gruff voice, a knife and Kyra Sedgewick.

Stats:

Director: Brian Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Starring: Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall, Alison Lohman, John Leguizamo, Amber Valetta, Kyra Sedgewick, Terry Crews, Ludacris
One to watch: Errr… Michael C. Hall I suppose
One to ignore: Terry Crews, sorry you were so much better in those Old Spice adverts

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