September 18, 2009 12:00 PM | Matthew Hawkins
['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a not-so-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s entry takes a slightly closer look at the new Neveldine/Taylor-directed movie Gamer, and includes spoilers, so beware.]
It's 2009 and video games sure have come a long way baby. Instead of racking my brains to figure some new way of stating what everyone already knows, especially to any casual reader of GameSetWatch, I'm simply going to point towards the recently released The Beatles: Rock Band. If that doesn't perfectly illustrate how the medium has finally arrived and is crossing virtually every barrier imaginable, then honestly I don't know what does.
Yet in many people's minds, the one thing that truly validates a form of communication, entertainment, or art form (in this case, all three) is how another portrays it. Again, as any GSW reader is well aware of, art shows featuring the vestiges of virtual personalities have been all the rage the past couple of years, though there's been a significant upturn this year alone.
As for sound, the chiptunes scene continues to turn heads, and while it's debatable if music composed and performed purely on a Game Boy will ever become truly mainstream, its influence on some of the hottest pop acts of today is completely undeniable. But when we speaking of moving images, things are still somewhat in the dark ages...
Take the recently released Gamer for example. Here we have the first big-budget Hollywood blockbuster (relatively speaking, of course) in recent memory that’s not just another lazy cashing-in of a pre-existing IP but actually examines the overall subject of video games in a genuinely compelling manner. Or at least come close to it; unfortunately, despite some flashes of potential brilliance here and there, the entire production is just a victim of its inability to seriously address the points that are brought up, primarily as they pertain to the age we live in.
Gaming has become a part of our everyday lives, and is thusly no longer a novelty. Its practically a fact of life that the directors are either unaware of, or are simply afraid to acknowledge, due to fears of alienating those aren't hip to gaming. With the end result being various misconceptions and stereotypes that, especially in the year 2009, have been outmoded for quite some time.
Not Just Your Ordinary Video Game Movie?
What makes Gamer so frustrating in the end is how, as noted, it had some serious potential. At face value, the plot seems fairly standard fare and hardly anything special: in the not so distant future, Slayers is all the rage, allowing gamers to take control of actual human beings in real-deal death-matches. Those who do the controlling are everyday folk, or at least are supposed to be; the movie's primary player is a teenage checklist of every out of touch assumption imaginable, straight from the mind of some uncreative screenwriter or movie executive, as to what young males who dabble in gaming must fantasize about. That being someone whose skills has led to him to superstar status (Slayers as a spectator sport is so popular that it’s watched across the globe as pay per view events), and most importantly, the attention of girls, girls, girls.
As for those being controlled, they're all convicts on death row that sign up for the real life war game with the promise of being let go after 30 wins. Which naturally is easier said than done. So when actual blood is spilled on the battlefield, no matter how gruesome the fashion, and things get very bloody, it's of no real consequence.
The only participant to come close is Kable, and the film kicks off with his 27th win. As the first one ever to have the goal with reach, he becomes the game’s most recognized and popular personality. Though all the prisoners including Kable himself are completely unaware of the massive impact the game/show has had on the outside world. Yet even higher up on the A-list is Ken Castle, the brainchild behind the Slayers concept, and whose technology makes it all possible.
Here's how it works: a nanotech virus is injected into a subject's brain, which then multiplies and basically installs itself, like a piece of software. The end result is unique IP address for each victim/subject that synchs up to Castle's systems, allowing direct control of their actions by the player. Slayers is actually the second game to utilize this system, the first one being a MMO called Society, and this is where things actually get interesting...
Society is clearly molded after Second Life, though it resembles Sony's PlayStation Home the closest, due to the fact that it's a bunch of white people in wacky raver-esque garb, all hanging out at an outdoor mall. Instead of convicts, the people who sign up here are also everyday people, ones that have fallen though society's cracks. To be more precise, those who no longer wish to make choices in life and prefer to be told what to do instead, no matter how humiliating or dangerous the end result.
One such person is Angie, the wife of Kable; unable to deal with her husband being in prison, as well as losing custody of their daughter, she allows herself to be a human puppet to help forget about her problems and also pay the rent.
In a scene in which Angie attempts to get back custody of her child, she claims to be an actress in the game when asked what her occupation is; it’s initially inferred that in addition to people willing to pay good money to control someone else, those who wish to be controlled also pay a premium. An angle t that’s far more interesting, but as is, the very idea of people giving their bodies up to allow fantasies to be fulfilled, which in turn nurse their own wounds, or so they believe, is an absolutely fascinating one.
Once this aspect of the movie comes to light, I really wanted it to shift gears and completely follow Angie from that point forward. Unfortunately, she mostly becomes an accessory to Kable's tale. It also needs to be noted that the one controlling her is a morbidly obese guy who eats waffles dipped in syrup like a person eats chicken mcnuggets with BBQ sauce, moves around exclusively in a power chair, more than likely due to the aforementioned fatness, and is constantly shirtless, as well as profusely sweating.
The minute I saw this guy, any hopes for something special was immediately dashed. Because as the film implies, anyone who wishes to live the life of an attractive, sultry woman must obviously be a disgusting fat guy. I personally have never held MMOs in the highest of regards and have always question how any of it can be considered fun, but even I know enough that everyone who plays them are not physical and mental train wrecks, and therefore was pretty insulted by the characterization.
Wait, Sorry, It Is. Never Mind.
Okay, back to the story: early on we're also introduced to a resistance group known as Humanz (what a name), who seek to take down Castle and his games. The plan of attack is two fold: first, someone on the inside alerts Kable of the plot to take him down unjustly. We learn that there's a delay between the commands of the player and the participants, referred to as a ping, and someone been assigned to kill Kable one who is not controlled externally and will therefore have the upper hand control-wise. Which again brings many possibilities to the table and that are never explored.
The second step involves Kable’s controller, for whom they provide a "mod" that allows direct contact verbally to his "icon" (which is the movie's term for avatar or in-game character), and which is something that’s strictly forbidden. Not surprisingly, the audience is treated to some "witty" back and forth between the two, as Kable discovers who precisely has been calling all the shots this entire time and is completely appalled as a result. I would be as well, by all the annoying gamer-isms that spew from the kid's mouth.
When it finally comes to time for the final battle, the 30th bout, it's made crystal clear that Kable will not win due to the cards being unfairly stacked against him. You see, the reason why he's in jail in the first place is because he was made an unwilling test subject of Castle's technology and made to commit a crime against his will. If Kable was ever got out, he’s probably spill the beans, and Castle's empire, built entirely from the success of Society and Slayers, would come tumbling down. I guess it's just ironic that this same person who has helped to make Castle’s meteoric rise might be the key to his downfall in such a coincidental manner, but this a movie after-all.
The only way for Kable to survive is to escape the game, and that means allowing him total control of himself, a plan that the kid is quite hesitant to go along with, especially with the biggest win in his own career just up ahead. At this crucial point, an important question will invariably pop up in any viewer’s mind: did Kable get this far because he's just so damn good at killing and stuff, or was it the kid's influence this entire time? Which not surprisingly is yet another aspect that is never addressed.
Instead, the film feels content with occupying itself with all these dumb little "details" to push the message that we're talking about video games here. All of which feel awkward or flat-out asinine, such as using and abusing technological terms when they simply don't apply (the movie sure does love the world firewall, that's for sure). Or better yet, lines like "Stop hacking me!"
When we view the action from Kable's POV, we notice a bunch of on-screen information that's standard fare for many FPSs, like a health count or indicator as to where the check point is. But you’ll also see his fellow combatants constantly glitching in and out... and never mind how all of this is supposed to be real human beings as well, so it makes absolutely zero sense... but when was the last time anyone played a game with so many graphical problems?
In the end, Kable manages to escape and becomes a wanted criminal, though Humanz eventually catches up with him and lay out the truth that he's been unaware of, how he's been a pawn in a greater game. Plus we learn of the greater threat: Castle has the power to control everyone in society via his technology, which many in populace seem rather nonchalant about. But again, all of this takes a back seat to Kable trying to get a hold of his wife and all the by the number action sequences that follow.
The movie was directed by the team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the same duo that brought the world Crank and Crank: High Voltage, and the action is just as wildly paced, but because Gamer takes itself too seriously (while still not taking its subject matter seriously enough, confusing I know), it's not nearly as fun. I also don't recall the constantly moving camera and rapid fire editing to be as annoying as they are here.
Certainly not helping is the anemic acting; Gerard Butler does a passable job as Kable, along with Ludacris as the head of Humanz. Michael C. Hall, mostly known for this role as the charming serial killer Dexter on Showtime, is perhaps the real stand out, but he's not given much substance to play with and is yet another generic bad guy. Another on the lost list of wasted opportunities which is the basic m.o. of the movie.
Perhaps some of the my complaints might seem a bit ridiculous, given what we're talking about here. But a great number of tiny details, if they had just been tweaked or received just a tad bit of additional care, could have produced one of the most engaging video game oriented blockbusters to come from a major studio.
And while still remaining true to what it's really supposed to be: a mindless orgasm of blood and explosion. Which could have possibly led the way for something similar, but more ambitious and better produced, and so on. But as noted at the start, it would seem that Hollywood has yet to grasp what video games and the people who play them truly are.
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]
Categories: Column: Cinema Pixeldiso