Sunday, April 11, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Gamer (2009)

It's funny how certain concepts bubble up from the collective subconscious and find a voice in the mainstream pop culture. For instance, the year 2009 will likely be remembered as the year of the avatar in science fiction cinema.

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.

Gamer and Surrogates share an idea here, and even, specifically, the fat man controller/player character. In the "anonymous" world of future human interaction, both films suggest, the hot woman you are having sex with may be the ugliest, fattest, most grotesque human being on Earth. Caveat Emptor.

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.

Game Over.

7 comments:

  1. Once again, I'm now intrigued. My time being what it is, I don't get out to many films and I opted not to make this one of them based on some lackluster trailers.

    Knowing more - I think I now owe myself a viewing. Thank you.

    As I was reading, by the by, I found myself noting parallels also to Demolition Man. The reforming savior of the prison system being the chief villain of the piece, a society laced with high levels of control, and a resistance movement underneath it all. It was certainly cartoony as well, though I've always felt it played that card frequently and on purpose.

    Definitely going to have to catch Gamer & Surrogates as well. I'll be curious to see their take on it firsthand.

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  2. Woodchuckgod:

    You're right to bring up the similarities here to Demolition Man -- that one escaped my radar, but after your comment...yep, the similarities are numerous.

    Gamer definitely has some major problems, be assured, but the world it sets up is powerful, dark and bleak. The film is brimming with ideas that have currency today; it's just in the execution of the ideas (particularly in the third act...) that it falls down.

    It might be rewarding to watch Surrogates (which also has its flaws) and Gamer back-to-back, or night-to-night, to immerse yourself in the year of the "avatar," and see how different filmmakers reckon with some identical themes (and even some identical characters).

    best,
    JKM

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  3. This movie pulled way too many punches

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  4. Word Warrior:

    Thanks for following! And I don't disagree with you. The movie features many, many disturbing visuals and concepts, but the execution of the narrative is just not up to snuff. I know it's supposed to be more "experiential," mimicking the form of the interactive video game, but I still would have liked the narrative to match the blazing imagery.

    best,
    JKM

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  5. This was one of those filmgoing experiences where I ended up being the only person in the theatre during the matinee slot I saw it in (happened for me with PANDORUM last year, too). I have been a total sucker for the Neveldine/Taylor stuff and this might be my favorite. Yet, I do recognize its shortcomings. I found the actual "gameplay" to be pretty tedious. Its the grossly exploitative communities that I find fascinating here. Would love to have just observed the diegetic world a bit more on the whole. I felt the same way about SURROGATES and the recent futuristic vampire film DAYBREAKERS. The conventional narratives can seriously limit the fun. But the eye candy mixed with the aggressive style here was enough to keep me happy. The film hits cable here in Canada this weekend and I'm looking forward to watching it again. Always happy to hear something positive about a film that I felt somewhat alone in liking...but I certainly don't mind those occasions when I get to see movies by myself on the big screen!!

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  6. Hi Indiephantom:

    Thanks for the comment!

    I'm glad to encounter another reviewer and viewer who appreciates the interesting aspects of Gamer...and they are many, really.

    I agree with you that the movie's true powera arises from its depiction of the, -- as you said -- "grossly exploitative communites" of "Society" and "Slayers." I would have liked a movie just exploring this universe, this world. If movies are becoming more experiential and less narrative-driven (and I believe they are), just a tour through this world would have been fascinating; perhaps a series of short vignettes, instead of a traditional hero-defeats-bad-guy narrative.

    best,
    JKM

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  7. Garlo6:34 AM

    Such a clear cut analysis of the film. Using this text for my HSC based on the evolution of technology and the ramifications it has on the human psyche. Couldn't have been better put. This review highlights the moral degradation of 'society' in the face of unchecked progress. Would definately be recommending this article to next years batch of Extension English students.

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