In the movie Gamer, people control real people in a living third-person shooter, guiding them through a war-torn hell created for the pay-per-view enjoyment of a staggering worldwide audience.
There's also the chance to control people in a world of over-indulgence and sex.
But what ties the two worlds together, and drives the movie, is the technology behind these emerging forms of entertainment: The ability to log in and drive another human.
Gamer gives us a glimpse of new world gladiators, of lust unleashed on a controlled population, of Sammy Davis dance numbers and of a world slowly turning manic, but is it worth the price of admission?
Concept: The heart of Gamer, and the most interesting thing about the game, is the concept of Nanex. Nanex is a nanotech virus that once injected into a person's brain, takes over cells and replicates itself. Eventually, once fully "installed", Nanex gives each person a unique IP address which can be used to control the person. The tech allows the controller to, in the case of Slayer, see through a person's eyes and in the case of Society, see and feel everything they experience.
The technology raises all sorts of intriguing issues like when isn't a person controlled and what if a person enjoys being controlled more than making their own decisions? The biggest moral issue raised, though, is how responsible is a person for their actions when they're not in control?
Slayer: The tech created by eccentric billionaire Ken Castle quickly spawns two real-world games. Slayer seems to be Castle's real money maker. In the real-world game, death row inmates agree to be controlled by players in extravagant gun fights of brown versus blue teams. If they survive 30 battles they're set free. The constant violence and inability to run from danger leaves many of the controlled inmates shell-shocked, while the one teenage controller we meet views the whole thing as a game and brags about gibs.
There's plenty of neat little things tucked into Slayer including the pro-gamer controller's groupies, illegal mods, upgrades and the inclusion of regular inmates who agree to be essentially background bots, computer controlled to wander, sit, drive through the fire zones as living props. If they survive a single round, they're set free. But they rarely do.
Society: The ads for Gamer may be mostly about running and gunning, but the most intriguing moments in the game took place in the film's version of Second Life. People walk funny, dance for no apparent reason and there's lots and lots of nudity and sex. But the best bits of the film are when the two not-virtual worlds collide and the citizens of Society aren't just blase about the violence that erupts heads and sends blood showering over them, they revel in it. Meanwhile, back in the living third-person shooter, the people played to kill spend their downtime commiserating and bemoaning how cheap life has become. That's a powerful statement.
Message: It's easy to lose the message in all of that eye-candy. The violence of Slayer is extreme, very extreme. And the moral ambiguity of Society is just as distracting. But caught up in those two worlds is a message about the dangers of giving in to temptation, of losing yourself in the moment and forgetting what's really important. It's so subtle it may be accidental, but I came away with a reminder that gaming, even when it involves real people, should remain a pastime. That the real world is out there happening with or without me.
Stereotypes: Furries. Check. Obese wheelchair-bound gamer. Check. Teenage violence-loving shooter fan. Check. While Gamer offers a fascinating take on the beginnings of a dystopian future, it doesn't really explore how those changes are reflected in the people who play these new, life-altering games. Instead of creating a new character set for this intriguing timeline, Gamer falls back on the classic stereotypes of what people think gamers are. Not taking the time to fully explore the impact of future games and how they might alter humanity is one of the movie's biggest missed opportunities.
Camera Work: The movie starts with a barrage of cuts, each showing jumpy, jittery scenes of combat. It's a bit much, but given the context makes sense. Unfortunately, this technique haunts the rest of the movie, popping up at the most inopportune, inexplicable moments in the film. The fast cuts, perhaps meant to convey some sense of the short attention span of this future world, ultimately confuse the scenes and detract from the movies moral eye candy: Those plentiful, fascinating moments in the film when the viewer might struggle to comprehend just what's going on in the world and the minds of the people living in it.
Everything Else: The best bits of Gamer are those found in the surreal sexually-charged and depraved world of Society and the ultra-violence of Slayer. Everything else in the movie pales in comparison. Unfortunately, a hefty chunk of the film takes place in this real world seemingly untouched by the new, absurdly obscene vices of Slayer and Society.
Acting: There are no emotional pay-offs in Gamer. There should be. Those moments were written into the script. But the acting gets lost in the trite dialog and the constant, distracting worlds of Slayer and Society.
Plot: What starts out as an interesting concept: Humans controlling humans for fun and money, quickly breaks down into a generic revenge flick. The biggest fault of Gamer is that it didn't stick to exploring the concept of living meat puppets and the consequences, both morally and physically, of a world where they exist. Instead, Gamer uses that as a backdrop to the same sort of action movie we've been watching since pictures moved and people talked.
The Ending: Not content to drive a mundane story through a surreal landscape, Gamer also ends on a low note. Pulling the plug on the film's high-minded concepts in such a low-handed way it almost undoes everything good about the movie.
Gamer isn't nearly as bad as you'd expect, but it's not nearly as good as it should be. Instead, the film is lost in that grey area between egregious mishandling and untapped potential. I wouldn't suggest going to the movies to see it, but it's probably worth a view once it comes to the small screen if for no other reason than to wonder at the possibilities of what could have been.
Gamer written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor and released by Lionsgate on Sept. 4 at theaters nationwide.
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