The last time I reviewed a movie that had any connection to a video game, things did not end well. On the other hand, I've been meaning to watch Tron, WarGames and The Last Starfighter again to see if the "holy trinity" of movies about gamers stand the test of time, especially with the long-awaited sequel to Tron just around the corner. I mean, there's got to be more to the fervor than just seeing Olivia Wilde in a skin-tight neon future-suit, right? Then again...
Anyway, Gamer isn't looking to compete with that high a pantheon, or any other group of movies. It's kind of looking to be it's own thing, and taken it's own, it's not that bad. You can't take it on it's own, unfortunately, because just about everything it does has, on some level or another, been done before.
Once again, we're in the near future. Not the glitsy, flying-cars future of Back to the Future Part 2, the gritty, brownish-grey near-future in pretty much every action movie and first person shooter made in the last decade or so, give or take a few stand-out examples. Internet media mogul Ken Castle is flush from his success in the phenomenon called Society which allows players to take control of real people and have them do anything the player wants. Now, he's introduced SLAYERS, in which gamers assume direct control of death row inmates and have them shoot each other for fun and profit. It's online deathmatches with flesh and blood hardcases instead of digital simulacra. The top badass in the game is Kable. He's close to freedom, but with not only a wife and daughter on the outside and a wrongful case keeping him locked up but also a big secret about Castle's success, the moment we see him it's just a matter of time before he breaks out and joins the underground resistance movement.
So yeah, this one's playing in the same yard as Equilibrium, District 9 and Repo Men. And using a mass media distraction to placate the masses while they're getting bent over for a nefarious purpose has also been done before, viz. The Running Man. To a lot of people, especially people who see lots of movies all the time, this is going to feel a little "been there, done that." Especially with Gerard Butler as Kable. A lot of people can't see him as anybody but Leonidas, having all but forgotten that he was also the Phantom of the Opera. As much as the movie might want to be taken on its own merits, the connections to previous and (let's face it) better-done work is inevitable and waters down the experience a bit.
You keep making that face, Gerard, it's going to stay that way.
So let's talk about what Gamer does differently, and what it gets right. It's not here to preach to us about the evils of video games or even to extol their virtues. It's here to play around with some concepts that have seeped into gamer culture and write them large across the screen. Glitched NPCs, game mods, the allure of online popularity - there's even a very brief joke about teabagging. Given that this is being directed by the guys responsible for the Crank movies, it should be no surprise that just about every aspect of gaming in general and first-person shooters in particular gets pulled out at one point or another, even if it's just touched on in passing.
There's also the fact that Society is very clearly a send-up of the online simulation Second Life. If you're at all aware of the existence of Second Life, you probably know that it's a haven for all sorts of people seeking an outlet, from counter-culture to free-form role-playing to out-and-out deviance. The approach that Gamer takes by replacing the customizable user avatars of Second Life with the real-life remote-controlled people of Society is calculated to make the entire enterprise seem sick and wrong. Not only does it make the antics of this sort of adult playground look ridiculous, it makes no bones about its portrayal of the kind of people who actually indulge in this sort of thing on a regular basis. It certainly isn't very nice in how it sees the players of Society, and by extension Second Life, but it's definitely funny.
Believe it or not, this is a
modest outfit in
Second Life Society.
While Gamer can be fun, it's also flawed. As I said, Butler is still shaking off the stoic badass visage that seems to paralyze the ability to convey emotion. The plot of the movie is inconsistent at best and disjointed at worst, and some of the camera work is too quick and confusing. The action sequences aren't going to set the world on fire and there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of inventiveness at work. Some characters are introduced only to have them die or disappear arbitrarily, some things happen with only the most threadbare explanation and a couple of plot threads that might have proven interesting go entirely unresolved. It doesn't maintain the frenetic pace of the aforementioned Crank flicks and it suffers, as the manic energy that both fuels the action and gives the scorn of the Society bits its edge drains very quickly when neither of those is happening. I think a couple of plot meetings and screenplay edits could have smoothed out these rough bits.
However, the dialog does pop in places, Michael C. Hall's fun to watch as Ken Castle, we get some great stuff from Ludacris as the leader of the resistance and while you might not be blown out of your seat by the action, the way Gamer takes the piss out of Second Life you just may catch yourself having a good time. A few moments of intelligent writing and a fresh take on a tried-and-true concept manage to poke through action sequences that would look right at home in a Transporter movie or any given game of Gears of War. Watching Gamer is like eating an entire giant Oreo cookie when all you really want is the cream filling but, for some reason, you just can't unscrew the damn thing properly. In my opinion, it's good to see a movie about gaming that has little to say about gaming itself from a pontification standpoint, and focuses more on the game.
Which you just lost, by the way.
Josh Loomis can't always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it's unclear if this week's film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain... IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.