Friday, April 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Starfighter (1984)

During an era in which computer-generated special effects are often over-utilized, the phrase "it looks like a video game" has frequently been deployed by film critics as a cutting insult.

In the case of Nick Castle's quarter-century-old The Last Starfighter (1984), however, the phrase is actually a compliment.

This is especially true if one subscribes to the critical theory that a movie's shape ought to reinforce and supplement the movie's content.

Here, The Last Starfighter's video-game-themed visuals and flourishes -- primarily featuring outer-space warfare -- hark back to the movie's central concept: that of an earthbound arcade video game serving as a futuristic sword-in-the-stone test that uncovers hidden greatness and heroism.
The Last Starfighter depicts the heroic journey of young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a man searching for meaning in his life. Alex lives in a "flea-speck" trailer court -- the Starlite-Starbrite -- along with his Mom and little brother, Lewis. He has been turned down for a college loan, and now plans to partake in "a world-wide tour to nowhere."

Alex is also in love with the gorgeous Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), a girl who seems afraid to cast her eyes and aspirations beyond the confines of their small world. "The truth is," he tells her, "you're scared of leaving the trailer park." But Alex actively desires an escape from his life of quiet desperation.

And to his surprise, he gets his wish...

When Alex achieves the new high score on an arcade game called Starfighter, he is promptly recruited by a flamboyant alien named Centauri (Robert Preston). After a lightning-fast journey to the stars, Alex must then save the peaceful planet Rylos from the invading space armada of the traitorous Zur and the barbaric Ko-Dan fleet.

At first Alex refuses to fight in this dangerous galactic confrontation, but soon he accepts his destiny as a Starfighter, and -- with the help of an Iguana-like co-pilot named Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) -- takes on "The Black Terror of the Ko-Dan" in a ship called a GunStar.

And everything --- the ship, the universe, the weaponry -- is right out of Starfighter. The game is thus revealed to be an incredibly accurate simulation and training ground rather than a mere "game;" a past-time that many don't accept as worthwhile. When Alex informs his Mother that he has achieved the high score, for instance, she blows off his achievement with a casual, "that's nice." She doesn't get it. She doesn't understand. To Alex, this is important stuff...
Along with Walt Disney's Tron (1982), The Last Starfighter is one of the earliest Hollywood productions to eschew models, miniatures, and motion-control photography for a new way.

Instead or relying on tried-and-true physical techniques, the film deploys digital representations of spaceships, planet surfaces, star-bases and the like in its various visual effects sequences. From space cars to GunStars, from the force-field of the breached Frontier to the Rylosian base, everything in The Last Starfighter is entirely computer-generated.

These CG creations indeed appear primitive and lacking-in-necessary-detail to our trained, experienced 21st century eyes, but nonetheless, they still interact meaningfully with The Last Starfighter's subject matter and core themes.

Specifically, Alex Rogan's cry of jubilation that real outer space combat is "just like the game!" is meant literally. Space battles intentionally look like golden age video game battles, and spaceship read-outs resemble the arcade game interface/console. When Alex grabs the joystick on his GunStar and blasts Ko-Dan fighters to smithereens for the first time, the audience is meant to remember and embrace Alex's experience with the arcade model; and indeed, its own experiences playing video games.

This is an important element of The Last Starfighter. The film forges a positive connection between our grounded reality -- our popular forms of entertainment such as video games -- and the intergalactic society of the stars, which the film uses explicitly as a metaphor for achieving one's dreams and goals.

Released during the aforementioned video game 's so-called Golden Age (1982-1987) -- the epoch of home systems such as the Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision and Vectrex -- The Last Starfighter thus develops an idea that every gamer -- at one point or another -- has at least briefly, or perhaps subconsciously, entertained.

Simply stated, that idea is that the immersing video game platform is a gateway or training-ground that leads straight to real life adventure. The player thus imagines -- or wishes himself -- essentially, into the world of the game.

A 1983 anthology film, Nightmares offers a darker contemplation of the same wish-fulfillment notion, landing Emilio Estevez's character into a deadly contest based on a fictional video game called "The Bishop of Battle. In The Last Starfighter, Alex realizes his dream of escape (and personal importance...) via his skill in video games...and actually comes to touch the stars.

These two productions function as two sides of the same coin, and both acknowledge something brewing in the American pop culture at the dawn of video game popularity: the experiential nature of the new medium, and the manner in which some players view reflexes and talents honed in the game world as real life tools.

Any film attempting to make this point in cinematic terms should indeed utilize special effects that audiences directly associate with the visuals of early era video games. Both Nightmares and The Last Starfighter accomplish that feat. In the latter case, the visuals of a Star Trek or a Star Wars film wouldn't work as cleverly here as do the CG effects: the audience wouldn't make the leap so cleanly from game to reality without the game-like special effects to connect the realms, to connect the dreams with the achievement of the dreams.

While integrating the up-to-date video game craze of its time, The Last Starfighter also puts a mythical, classical spin on its tale. Specifically, the movie terms the Starfighter arcade game, an "Excalibur" test, alluding to the Arthurian legends of Camelot.

Or, to adopt the movie's terminology itself: "only a few were found to possess the gift." Thus a joystick jockey isn't just a simple player then, but a hero-in-waiting, a king-in-the-making. One ready to pull the sword from the stone and accept his or her true destiny as hero. This approach to heroism is also splendidly democratic: anybody with the skill and talent can become a Starfighter. Station in life -- or point of origin -- (like a trailer park) doesn't matter.

What remains so much fun about The Last Starfighter today is the manner in which it imaginatively and humorously integrates the entertainment past (film and literature) with what it views as the "future" of mass entertainment (video-games; CG effects).

This means that Robert Preston -- playing an alien named Centauri -- offers a variation on his beloved character from Morton DaCosta's classic The Music Man (1962). Like Harold Hill in that production, Centauri arrives at his destination (Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court, not River City) in a disguise of sorts. And like Harold Hill, Centauri's primary concern seems to be wealth. Of course, in the end, the scoundrel is revealed to have -- surprise! -- a heart of gold. That's true in both films.

Also, in keeping with the video game aesthetic of The Last Starfighter, Centauri's/Hill's colorful language has been updated. "You bet your asteroids," he quips at one point, and the audience just knows he's referring not to space-going rocks...but rather to Atari's 1979 arcade game, Asteroids.

And when a Ko-Dan weapon targets a vulnerable starbase, the high-tech screens inside that facility cut to a real-time image of a streaking-missile or bomb that could have been lifted right from Dave Theurer's initiative for Atari, Missile Command (1980). A weapon with a trail inches irrevocably towards its destination, an unprotected (unshielded) installation. What follows -- just as in the game - is total annihilation.

The Last Starfighter
even offers a metaphysical spin on life and death, and one also related to the tao of video games. After Centauri is believed dead, he returns to life (just in time for a happy ending). He claims to have simply been "dormant."

Of course, in video games, our avatars die and are re-born on a regular basis every time we hit the reset or start button on our consoles. In the world of The Last Starfighter, as in the world of video games, death is not a permanent state of affairs. We live to fight another day and death may just be that "unseen dimension" in which we've activated the "off" switch till the next contest, the next burst of "life" and action.

The Last Starfighter is a lot of fun, and a memorable genre film overall...if not always a great one. Watching it today, one can see how it suffers from a case of that 1980s affliction called "the cutes." Specifically, there's a lot of sub-adolescent humor involving Alex's little brother, and it's just seems goofy and unnecessary today. Of course, Lewis serves a purpose in the plot beyond the wise-cracks and young-skewing humor too. Near film's end, we see him applying himself to the Starfighter arcade game. The next generation awaits its turn...

But when The Last Starfighter works on all thrusters, it really works. Appropriately, the film's final shot is a memorable and even stirring one. The camera is aimed towards the Heavens, as Alex, Maggie and Grig return to the stars aboard the accelerating GunStar. But below the GunStar -- closer to us in the shot, at the lower left-hand corner of the frame -- stands the neon, flickering star icon/sign of the Starlite/Starbrite Trailer Park.

Like so much of the film's visuals, that neon, colored light seems a reflection of down-to-Earth technology, of the video game graphics of the day (the 1980s). The image is simple and basic -- but still a beacon in the night calling us to adventure. And oppositely, calling adventure to us.

In one closing shot, we get both our grounded reality (the reality of video games) and the dream of a better one: a rocket ship bound for adventure. It's a beautiful and valedictory image, and if you consider The Last Starfighter a film about dreaming big dreams, a meaningful one too.

Early in The Last Starfighter, Alex notes with despair that he is "only" a kid from Earth, not a starfighter. Centauri replies that "if that's what you think, that's all you'll ever be."

We can't all be heroes and starfighters, but Centauri's words remind audiences that when humans apply themselves opportunities arise. When we dream (even if we're "dreaming" video games), we imagine new possibilities. A voyage to Mars in 2030, perhaps?

A high score in life opens up all sorts of doorways. Not just to outer space, but to adventures unknown and great. And when we hear the words, "Greetings Starfighter," it's our responsibility to grab the joystick, kick in the thrusters, and go for the gusto.

In suggesting that course of action, The Last Starfighter may not be great art, but in its own entertaining way, it's certainly an inspiring genre film, and one worthy of a re-visit today.

The House Between Soundtrack Now For Sale

If you're a follower of my cult web-series, The House Between (2007 - 2009), good news: The official series soundtrack is now up for pre-order here.

Here's what you get if you order soon:

The soundtrack contains nearly three hours of music--132 cues--from all three seasons and will be released as an MP3 disc playable on computers, new model home and car CD players (MP3 capable), as well as new model DVD players.

As a special bonus, the first 10 people who purchase the soundtrack will receive the CD in a woven 'medicine bag' straight out of Astrid's closet in addition to a "House Between" medallion with a keyring and necklace. The second 10 people will receive the CD, medallion, keyring and necklace only. From there on it will be the CD only."

Get your copy here! Now, I just have to get the DVDs done. (I'm re-editing the whole series for DVD, since it was designed, originally, to be seen on a computer screen...).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

New Review of Space: 1999 - The Forsaken

Recently, I discovered on the Inter-Tubes this thorough, highly-analytical review of my 2003 Space:1999 novel, The Forsaken. It absolutely floored and humbled me. The author of the piece, David Welle, delves deeply into the story and the themes that Powys editor-in-chief Mateo Latosa and I worked so hard to enunciate.

Anyway, here's a sample of Welle's review, but if you're a Space:1999 fan, I recommend you read the whole thing (especially if you've read the book):

"This was a very powerful novel, one I thoroughly enjoyed reading (and commenting on too).

There is a considerable amount of characterization, most of it seemed very consistent with prior character development, and where seemingly not consistent, nonetheless convincing (to me anyway) of why. Several characters received the most focus, but there was definitely a balance with other characters getting a good amount of time as well, and a feeling like we're getting to see a lot of perspectives. There was good character development all around, again with some surprises. A sense of Alpha as a growing society. Growing sense of camaraderie (albeit some in a not so good tone, which seemed appropriate too). Some romantic interludes.

The plot is strong and engaging..."

And then there's this, my favorite part:

"We then jump to a fascinating scene of John and Victor talking philosophically about their experiences in space, their longing to leave big questions behind to raise the next generation and leave the questions to them, the urge to explore in humanity that seemed completely absent from the Cryptodira, Alpha's unlikely survival at several turns, the death of the Space Brain, and whether there is a degree of manipulation in some or much of this.

Victor is often blunt here, presumably still feeling the suffering of some but looking at it from a different place, so to speak -- logically, philosophically, as objectively as he can, acknowledging that perhaps the universe is cruel even if it seems to prefer life to flourish every where to which it can get itself. Numerous comparisons are made (inc. the short time from first controlled flight to landing on the Moon -- one of my long-time favorites), comparisons to Biblical passages and people, as well as talk about Alphans (and perhaps especially John) being "tested" in some manner (something I've always thought a curious possibility).

There is even talk, of course, about whether all this discussion points to an imperative to take Pyxidea as their own or whether that would be a "reward for murder," whether John's choice is the right one or is a sort of defiance against the universe, and yet another bleak comparison.

It is an absolutely fascinating, highly thematic discussion tying much of the novel together, and to much of the series, and a number of points in the series to each other. I'm not going to even try to get into all of it (at least not in original posting, but perhaps later), and in part because part of me feels like it is an even deeper layer of "spoiler" that I really don't want to spoil. It is "simply" seven of the most fascinating and masterfully-written pages I've read in some time..."

Theme Song of the Week: Airwolf (1984-1986)

Monday, April 12, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #106: Airwolf: "Pilot"

From 1984 to 1986 on CBS, "the attack helicopter of the future," -- dubbed Airwolf -- flew circles against the competition, including a disastrous TV version of Dan O'Bannon's Blue Thunder (1983).

Created by Donald Bellisario (Tales of the Gold Monkey), Airwolf aired at 9:00 pm on Saturday nights, and -- at least during its first season -- featured a dark, brooding quality that distinguished it from run-of-the-mill 1980s TV action-adventure fare. Less jovial than MacGyver, less tongue-in-cheek than The A-Team, this series charted its own distinctive trajectory.

The universe of Airwolf is introduced in "Airwolf: The Movie," the two-hour pilot episode written and directed by Bellisario. A traitorous genius, Dr. Charles Henry Moffet (David Hemmings) steals the futuristic attack helicopter (a re-dressed Bell 222A) from a branch of the C.I.A. called "The Firm." Moffet takes the top-secret craft, which can exceed the speed of sound, to Libya, where he uses it under the employ of America's big enemy of the early 1980s, Colonel Mu‘ammar al-Qaḏāfī.

A high ranking official in the secretive "Firm," code-named Archangel (Alex Cord) attempts to recruit loner and pilot, Stringellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) to steal Airwolf back from Libya after Moffet uses it to destroy an American naval destroyer at sea. Hawke isn't inclined to help out at first, but the Firm steals all of his priceless art collection (gifted to him by his grandfather) as an incentive. Also, another agent, gorgeous Gabrielle (Belinda Bauer) romances Hawke, and the two fall in love.

With the help of pilot and old family friend, Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), Hawke finally undertakes the mission to recover Airwolf, but in the process loses Gabrielle, whom, Moffett tortures in the Libyan desert and leaves for dead.

Using Airwolf's awesome weaponry, Hawke kills Moffett and takes the chopper back to the States. But instead of turning it over to Archangel and the Firm, Stringfellow decides to hide Airwolf in an undisclosed location. He will only return the fearsome weapon of destruction to the government when the Firm reveals to Hawke everything it knows about his M.I.A. brother, St. John, who disappeared in Vietnam.

Archangel suggests that an accommodation can be reached, especially if Hawke occasionally flies important missions in the Firm's interest.

The quality that largely differentiated Airwolf, at least during its first season, from the vast majority of action series on the air at the time (like the immensely enjoyable but cartoonish A-Team), was its melancholy tone and personality. Jan-Michael Vincent portrayed a taciturn, haunted hero who clearly forecasts "the dark age" of such heroes following Tim Burton's Batman in 1989. In its original review of the series, Variety noted Hawke's "intricate background," and much of that personal history is revealed in the pilot movie.

Specifically, Stringfellow's parents died when he was twelve. The love of his life died in a car accident when he was a young adult. And his beloved brother disappeared in Vietnam during the war. And, following the action of the pilot, Gabrielle is also dead and gone. This history explains why Hawke lives the life of a hermit at his log cabin in Big Bear, keeping only a dog and a circling bald eagle as company: he believes he is cursed. Anyone who gets too close to him will die.

Introspective and cynical, Hawke spends his days playing a Stradivarius cello for the aforementioned flying eagle, a lonely serenade from one majestic creature to another, perhaps. As TV Guide's Robert MacKenzie noted, Vincent has a "glum magnetism" in the lead role of Hawke, and "can carry a scene." Indeed he can. The most emoting Vincent ever does is with his cheek muscles. They flex when he's angry. He's the show's unlikely center of gravity, unmovable and mostly unmoved by the destruction surrounding him.

A loner and a musician, Hawke was also presented on Airwolf as something of a serious, independent thinker, at least initially. In the pilot movie, he wonders if there's any real difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Archangel's assistant, Mariella answers that the Americans "wear white hats." Stringfellow doesn't look convinced at that distinction. During the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Stringellow's question about the use of power (and weaponry) was rare on television, if not all together invisible.

might have quickly proven a cold, mechanical series about a super helicopter blowing things up, but with the unconventional and downright anti-social Stringellow Hawke as its lead character, the first season boasted the sort of gravitas and humanity that today we associate with modern action characters like 24's Jack Bauer (who has faced his share of personal tragedy too.)

Alas, CBS was apparently baffled by the gloomy, serious tone and burgeoning story arc of Airwolf, and demanded "family friendly" changes for the ensuing seasons. For one thing (in the tradition of Mission: Impossible), the action would shift from foreign to domestic, hopefully to ramp-up audience interest and identification. For another thing, a possible regular love interest for Hawke was added to the series with the outgoing, spicy character of Caitlin O'Shannessy (Jean Bruce Scott). Hawke and Santini also became more willing, less-questioning agents for the Firm.

Still, even these modulations in formula looked great compared to Airwolf's final TV sortie. The series shifted from CBS to the USA Network for its fourth season, ditched Jan-Michael Vincent, and featured an all-new cast (including Barry Dillon as the missing St. John). Even Airwolf herself was MIA: the series now only featured "rerun" stock footage of the amazing chopper (culled from previous episodes). The second and third seasons might have been a corruption of the series' original adult intent, but the fourth season was an out-and-out travesty. In all, 79 episodes of Airwolf were made; 55 of them airing on CBS.

As we all realize, remakes of once-popular properties are arriving hot and heavy these days, so it's likely only a matter of time before someone takes a crack at an Airwolf feature film. While it would be nice to see the further adventures of Stringfellow Hawke, one can only hope that prospetive producers recall the program's first season, and the mood of icy introspection, loneliness and melancholy that the series crafted with relative skill. Otherwise, Airwolf is just a show (or movie) about a cool helicopter...and that gets old. Fast.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


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.