Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Gamer back from the dead.
Dir: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Starring: Gerard Butler, Amber Valetta, Michael C Hall
Well gee whiz and willikers, they sure did like their near-future dystopian sci-fi action thrillers at the tail end of the 00s. We’ve already talked about 2010’s Repo Men, and now is the turn of 2009’s slightly less gory Gamer. Unlike the quite well-balanced Repo Men, Gamer leans unashamedly toward the action side of action thriller. In the near future, watching convicted criminals compete in death-games is now popular entertainment for the masses. The twist is that technology exists that allows prisoners to be controlled by other people at computers like meaty ol’ puppets.
The most charismatic character in Gamer is Michael C. Hall’s gleefully over-the-top, Saturday-morning-cartoon villain
Thus every prisoner is controlled by a ‘player’, Call of Duty style. Successful player/prisoner pairs can become famous, replete with groupies and corporate sponsors. One such duo is Simon (Logan Lerman) and Kable (Gerard Butler), with Kable approaching the 30 games required for freedom. Simon is given an illegal programme that lets him talk directly to Kable by Humanz, an anti-body control group, and together Kable and Humanz convince Simon to relinquish control so that Kable can escape. Kable knows something about the body-controlling technology’s creator Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) and would not be allowed to live even if he reached 30 ‘victories’. Freed, Kable sets off to rescue his wife and daughter and kill Castle.
What’s odd about Gamer is that while most of the characters are unpleasant, it doesn’t wholly come across as a bad thing. It creates the feel of a shallow, materialistic world where death is a game and humanity is devalued. Where it is a problem is Kable. The only time he can be described as anything other than ‘dour’ is when he’s briefly dour and drunk. An overused example perhaps, but when Hamlet’s on his quest for revenge he doubts, he gets angry, reflects, cracks jokes. Grim determination alone does not an engaging character make. Conversely, the most charismatic character in Gamer is Hall’s villain (not a unique occurrence), whose plan for world domination is so gleefully over-the-top, Saturday-morning-cartoon that it feels out of place in a film about sour-pants Kable.
There are plenty of things wrong with Gamer (the fact the fact that Simon disappears from the narrative only to pop up again at a convenient time during the final showdown, or that Humanz are so uninteresting and unremarkable I’d forgotten them until I read a synopsis), but Kable’s reason for seeking revenge is interesting, much better than the standard “You killed my [X]/destroyed my village”. The finale is good fun too, a nice clash of Hall’s jocular villain and Butler’s grumpy hero.
It’s surprising that Gamer’s ‘Society’ subplot – probably a quarter of the film – is capable of stimulating so much thought
But while these patches of silver lining help, Gamer is recommended primarily because of one thing. That one thing is Society, which actually only makes up a subplot of the film. Society is another people-control game, this time based around social interactions in the style of The Sims or Second Life. Users pay to play, and ‘characters’ get paid for offering their bodies for control. Since his imprisonment, Kable’s wife has fallen on hard times and the only work she can get is in Society.
The parts centred around Society feel like another, much more intelligent film. In fact, a film based solely on Society would be a much more interesting picture than Gamer ever had a chance of being. On the (literal) surface, it’s people dressed like brightly coloured idiots dancing happily and riding scooters, but delve deeper and it descends into sadistic raves and kinky sex. If it was given time, Society could comment on many things: acting vicariously through online personas; the depths poverty drives people; are your actions your own if controlled by someone else, even when it’s you experiencing the consequences?
As is, these issues are hinted at more than explored. Even so, it’s surprising that a subplot that’s probably a quarter of an action film at most is capable of stimulating so much thought. That is the true tragedy of Gamer. Watch it to see what it could have been, had the right cast and director made a concept sci-fi drama instead of a much safer action thriller.
All images: Lionsgate