Human beings operated perfect robots "surrogates" in the Bruce Willis cop-thriller Surrogates (2009). Sam Worthington operated his test-tube, blue-skinned N'avi in James Cameron's box-office shattering epic, Avatar (2009). And here is Gamer (2009), the extreme Neveldine/Taylor action-opus which dramatizes the creepiest, darkest avatar scenario yet put to film.
Set "some years from now," Gamer occurs in an America dominated by two popular video games. The first is "Society," "the ultimate simulation experience," in which human gamers pay to control other real humans (avatars) in real settings. The controlled avatars or icons are paid to be controlled in this fashion; their natural brain cells replaced by artificial "Nanex" cells, Nanites that enable remote control, and which pin the game avatars with a specific IP address.
In other words, you can "get paid to be controlled" in "Society" or you can pay to control the actions of another human being. Why would someone agree to be physically controlled by someone else? Desperation and poverty are two answers. Another: "No tough choices" and "no responsibility" for your actions.
The second popular game depicted in Gamer is entitled "Slayers," and it is more overtly violent than "Society." Here human gamers again pay to control other human beings. In this case, however, the game is a battle scenario during which death is often the result. Death-row convicts are the played characters/avatars, and if they can survive thirty bloody missions intact, they are released from incarceration. Less skilled, less violent criminals can play "genericons" who populate the game world, and they only need to survive one mission to be released. But given the level of mayhem and destruction in each mission scenario, surviving even one arena hardly seems likely. Actor John Leguizamo's character learns this the hard way in the course of one ultra-violent mission.
The mastermind behind "Society" and "Slayers" is billionaire Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), the very man who bailed out America's bankrupt prison system, and devised this new method of handling prisoners.
Pitted against Castle in the film is our hero, John Tillman, or Kable (Gerard Butler), an icon/avatar who has survived twenty-seven of his missions and is thus positioned to be the first death-row convict ever released via "Slayers." Kable's human "player" is Simon, a 17-year old rich kid (who looks like he's twelve years old).
In the world beyond "Slayers," a battle terrain which resembles -- no doubt intentionally -- Call to Duty: Modern Warfare, Kable's little girl has been moved into foster care. Worse, Kable's wife Angie (Amber Valletta) is an "actress" in "Society," meaning that she is a controlled avatar too. In her case, Angie's player is an obese, sweaty pervert and perpetual coach potato: a man who plays his game while dipping frozen waffles into maple syrup by the bucket-full.
Like The Running Man (1987) or Death Race (2008), Gamer revolves around one good man's concerted efforts to escape the corrupt establishment that has made him both a prisoner and a media superstar. And yes, this facet of the film is likely a subtle comment on the highs/lows of celebrity.
Here, Kable wants to free his wife from her avatar slavery, and recover his daughter too. Along the way, however, during his heroic journey, he must also take down Castle (who has a plan for global domination, naturally), and collaborate with a homegrown resistance movement, here termed "Humanz" and commanded by Ludacris.
You may remember that Surrogates also featured a resistance movement (likewise led by an African-American man, played by Ving Rhames); one that resisted the so-called "progress" represented by a new, de-humanizing technology. Here, Ludacris, Allison Lohman and a few others toil in a basement dominated by anachronistic 1980s arcade video games (Defender, Missile Command, Galaga), hoping to undo the effects of the Nanex technology and the new age of human-based video games. These old arcade games are thus positioned in the film's text as a more wholesome, more innocent form of game recreation.
As I wrote above, Gamer is an absolutely extreme film. It is brutal and violent, but, importantly, never gratuitous. All the considerable violence in the film carries a heavy dramatic purpose: these are human beings dying in futuristic gladiatorial games and urban battlefields, not just pixelized, computerized soldiers. When Kable is able, under Humanz's auspices, to communicate with his player, Simon, he reminds the boy that those being chunked and splattered across the game's bloody streets are actually thinking, feeling, human beings. Simon is able to separate himself from that fact, however, with remarkable ease. They are "death row psychos," he replies without sympathy. "They had it coming."
This cruel remark is part and parcel of the film's overriding conceit. When personal actions become totally separated from results, from consequences, we are capable of terrible things, terrible rationalizations, Gamer suggests.
For instance, Angie's disgusting, lip-smacking "Society" player, sends his character (Angie -- a real, flesh & blood woman) into the most degrading, humiliating sexual situations he can imagine. He does so because he does not have to deal with the results of his actions himself. He is not the one getting fucked in the ass by unsavory, sicko degenerates. He is not the one submitting his body to the dangers of communicable diseases. He is just having fun, and hey, his avatar is being paid for the use of her body, right?! In this world, that fact seems to make it all okay. Slavery has been re-imagined as a win-win financial transaction. The slave gets something (money); and the slaver gets something too: the chance to act out the darkest fantasies without fear of repercussion. It's just a game, after all. Right?
I particularly admired in Gamer how the filmmakers use the pop song Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as a leitmotif. The lyrics read, in part:
"Everybody's looking for something/ Some of them want to use you/ Some of them want to get used by you/ Some of them want to abuse you/ Some of them want to be abused."
These words perfectly express the film's dark argument about our human nature. Everyone is looking for something in Gamer, but some of the things they seek are not only unhealthy, but sick and perverse. When other human beings become our toys, and we can imprint our deepest fantasies upon them, we become inhumane, monstrous.
Gamer reaches its thematic pinnacle, perhaps, when -- via Tillman's attempt to save Angie from further sexual degradation - - the film's two video games, "Society" and "Slayer," become one in the same, merged, at an overpopulated Rave. Violence and sex suddenly become intermingled in one explosive, debauched scene.
Blood spatter, under ultra-violet light, looks just like semen spatter, we quickly learn. The gyrating, appetite-sating revelers don't know the difference. It's all just body decoration.
In its action-packed tale of a computer icon who becomes a pop culture icon, Gamer succeeds in painting a dark picture of human nature, one extrapolated from current trends in our society. The makers of Gamer seem to understand, particularly, that movies (especially with the advent of 3D) are becoming more experiential and less narrative-based, less character-based. Accordingly, they have crafted a loud, jittery, explosive, sense-shattering experience. Those who don't like it will complain about the pervasive quick-cut editing style and the shaky cameras, no doubt. But like the overt sexuality and extreme violence on display, this is not a gratuitous approach; it's a pointed commentary on contemporary film style.
Still -- and again, much like Surrogates -- Gamer doesn't quite hold together by the end of the third act. Castle -- a man holding all the cards -- is dispatched a little too easily in the finale. And once more, a worldwide system of control ("Society" and "Slayers") is rendered inoperative in somewhat unbelievable, clean fashion. In reality, the world just doesn't spin that way.
Some aspects of the film's villains are a little too cartoony for my taste, as well. A soldier villain seen in much of the movie just....seethes. Scene after scene, he sits...and seethes. It's so broad in performance and presentation that it's comical. And when Hall, playing Castle with an effete Southern lilt, pauses to perform Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" in a dead-on impersonation of the late Sammy Davis Jr., the film grinds to a campy (if distinctive...) halt. The song works thematically (since Castle controls everybody, under the skin...), but the moment is nonetheless a versimilitude-shattering train-wreck in terms of the film's sense of gritty reality.
Despite notable flaws, mainstream movie critics seem to have missed the point of the incendiary Gamer. It holds something like a 29% percent approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes at present, and that's way too low given the film's sense of imagination. Reviews pretty much dismissed it as a generic action flick when the opposite is actually true. For most of its running time, the Neveldine/Taylor movie is a vital indictment of generic, mindless action flicks (and video games), as well as of the people who derive vicarious thrills from them.
But perhaps that's too much like biting the hand that feeds you. And perhaps that's why, in the last act, Gamer seems to fall from grace and rely too heavily on age old, trite, action-conventions. The movie almost hammers home its dark commentary on human nature, but then decides to pull its final punches in favor of a Hollywood happy/crappy ending.