The ugly truth about when online games go offline
By Jared Peterson
From time to time, Hollywood likes to include in its crass, soulless entertainment a vision of the dystopian ruin that will surely come from consuming crass, soulless entertainment. Enter Gamer, a kind of live-action video game hybrid that cloaks itself in the bad behavior we’re supposedly bringing on ourselves.
The film transports us “some years from this exact moment,” to a world united in digital depravity. Nanotech implants allow gamers to remotely control and experience the actions of real people. In a massively multiplayer game called Society, paying subscribers can play out sins of the flesh (and crimes of fashion) by manipulating real live humans, who are paid for the use of their bodies. This icky business model, and the technology that makes it possible, are both the brainchild of creepy tech mogul Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall, darkly slumming Dexter). Castle’s other killer app, Slayers, operates on the same principle, except that players pay to take control of actual warriors culled from an overflowing penal system. The convicts are vying for a chance at freedom by surviving 30 rounds of all-out slaughter. Closest to that goal is Kable (Gerard Butler, Russell Crowe 2.0), a tough-as-nails soldier being “played” by a spoiled, teenaged gamer (Logan Lerman). Kable’s an innocent man, with a family on the outside and a grudge to settle. But bigger wheels are turning. Castle wants him dead, and an underground hacker movement wants to bring down the virtual walls by helping him escape.
Now if you’re thinking this sounds familiar, chances are you have TNT and have had your TV on sometime in the last 15 years. Gamer was written and directed by the hip, hyphenate entity Neveldine/Taylor (unhip given names Mark and Brian, respectively), who are responsible for the campy, hyperkinetic action film Crank. This new film uses that same SteadiCam-ed and smash-cut style, messily strewn around a plot that is unapologetically equal parts The Running Man and The Matrix. (They can’t help but work in some visual references to Gladiator, too, winking at Butler’s inescapable resemblance to Crowe.) The not-so-secret ingredients are the high-tech entertainments du jour—the skeevy cognitive dissonances of online social environments like Second Life and The Sims, and the engrossing mass-casualty action of “first-person shooter” games like Halo.
There’s fun here, of a sort. Fans of the shooter games may enjoy the literally visceral live-action representations of kill after kill after kill. And as the evil Castle, Hall siphons the leering menace of his Showtime serial killer and adds something that other character can’t allow: a goofy, gleeful theatricality. (The final showdown ends up being part fistfight, part Fosse performance piece.) But on the whole the movie cleaves too closely to the action game structure, and the movie nakedly revels in the compulsive excess that will supposedly blight our near future.
Gamer is steeped in gory, glorified violence and rank, random sexuality. The “Slayer” environment is a bloody free-for-all and a proving ground for the squishiness of the human body. Bloody matter squirts and splatters from wounds and blunt traumas; heads are cracked, smashed, perforated and severed; body parts litter the scorched earth. Men are dispatched by grenades and flamethrowers and take obligatory spills off unnecessary catwalks. Those uncomfortable with needles will be, well, uncomfortable; and, in addition to some disorienting editing and camera work, there are one or two sequences with strobe lighting that might be a problem to viewers sensitive to that effect. In Society, men and women gallivant in gaudy, Day-glo outfits with strategically missing parts, making bare buttocks and breasts available to be groped and fondled. Men in wildly divergent states of fitness appear nearly naked and sweaty. There is drinking and cigarette smoking, a dash of vomiting and urinating and farting. Most characters use foul language (several Fs and MFs), sexual references (various parts and functions), foul, unsavory associations (a character called Rick Rape—all kinds of wrong) and insensitive and coarse epithets (including one N word).
At a September 5th screening, the following previews were shown: Jennifer’s Body (R), a wry horror flick with Megan Fox—Ms. Fox bares her midriff and flaunts her undies, does some skinny-dipping, takes a lighter to her tongue, flashes demonic fangs and impales several high-schoolers; Daybreakers (not yet rated), in which nearly everyone’s a vampire and humans are an endangered delicacy—fangs, blood, some crossbow fire and the way overused guy-gets-blindsided-by-a-car bit; Legion (not yet rated), about bad angels—no, really bad angels, with big leathery wings and grotesque, stretched out jaws and limbs—plus biblical blights, locusts, fires, some gunfire, and an snarling, startling granny; The Fourth Kind (PG-13), a supposedly true story of alien abductions—lots of scary, screechy sounds, screaming, and hysterical outbreaks from people in therapy; Ninja Assassin (R)—what, are there ninja accountants?—lots of martial arts fighting and dying, lots and lots of throwing stars, bloody gashes across a man’s face, plus a kiss and a bang (explosion); and, finally, a teaser trailer for Saw VI (I’m thinking R) that does the trick with only a dingy room and grainy images of previous film’s freakouts.
Jared Peterson most recently reviewed Shorts.