Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Film Review - 'Gamer'

In the near future, eccentric genius, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), invents a self-replicating nano-technology which, when implanted in a human brain, replaces brain cells and allows a third party to take direct control of the affected person's motor functions. A person under the influence of this technology is always entirely aware of what is happening - but, when someone else is in control, they are essentially powerless.

Now, you might be thinking that technology like this would raise all sorts of issues if it ever existed in the real world. And, you would probably be right. But, this isn't the real world - so, instead of the ethical debates you might expect, this new technology becomes the basis for a pair of massively popular video games.

The first is 'Society' - where players can pay for the opportunity to take direct control of real 'actors', who are payed for their voluntary participation. Think of it like Second Life - only, somehow, even more prone to outright creepiness. We're talking 'a man takes control of a woman and directs her toward a known rapist, so that he can watch the results in first-person' level of creepy, here. Once the 'actors' sign up to become an avatar in 'Society', there don't seem to be many rules in place to protect them from the players. Though, on the plus side, 'actors' are very well payed for their willing participation.

The other game is 'Slayers' - a real-world first-person shooter where players take control of death row inmates. The rules of 'Slayers' state that if a prisoner is able to survive 30 games, then they will earn a full pardon and be released. Though, of course, no one has ever actually survived that long. Most don't survive more than 10 matches - yet, as the film opens, we are introduced to 'Kable' (Gerard Butler) who, under the control of his player, 17 year old Simon (Logan Lerman), has managed to survive 27. 'Kable' is moving closer and closer to earning the full pardon that was promised to all of the participants in 'Slayers - the only problem is that the actual release of a prisoner was never really part of the plan.

Gamer is a film that seems to be targeted at an oddly specific target audience - those that have a strong dislike for the violence in video games, but don't have any problem with the violence in film. It is a film that seems to have something that it desperately wants to say about the influence of video games, and the dehumanising effects of the violence portrayed within them. But, at the same time, it revels in its own violence to such a great extent that any attempt at a 'message' is effectively undermined (even if it were a message that the viewer would have been willing to accept - which is, of course, a whole other issue).

Or, perhaps, it has nothing important to say on the matter? Perhaps Gamer is really just a simple action film? One where the film-makers simply took the science-fiction premise and ran with it - milking it for all it was worth.

Honestly, I don't know which I would have preferred.

If Gamer does have a message that it wants to share with the audience, then it is one that manages to be both incredibly heavy-handed and vaguely hypocritical, at the same time. If, on the other hand, there is no message or moral here, then we are left with a violent action film that almost seems to judge you for enjoying the violent spectacle it goes to such great lengths to provide. Either way, the context of what we are offered serves to make actually watching Gamer a vaguely uncomfortable experience. Though, it is one that is likely to stay with you.

There are so many missed opportunities here, though. If either of the two games was the film's main focus, then Gamer could have been every bit as interesting as it clearly wants to be. With 'Society', you could have had the influence of anonymity, and the way that it seems to encourage all sorts of abhorrent behaviour - something which you can already see plenty of on the Internet, if you take the time to look. With 'Slayers', you could have had a focus on the relationship between the players and their chosen Avatars - and, perhaps, even made some sort of coherent point about the dehumanising effects of violence.

Both of these, very worthwhile, themes are touched on in the film. But, neither is given the attention that it would seem to deserve. Instead, they seem to have been awkwardly mashed together.

Then, there's the sudden change of tone about half-way through, when 'Kable', with the help of a group of activists, manages to escape from the game. Free from the influence of his player, 'Kable' still displays a willingness to maim and kill that would put your average 80s action hero to shame. Any trace of interesting social commentary that the film may have been working toward is lost in this later half, when Gamer seems to devolve into a much more traditional, if particularly brutal, action film.

I feel like I'm possibly being a little too hard on this film. After all, I've never been averse to enjoying a bit of the old ultra-violence in either film or video-games. There is a long and proud tradition, within both mediums, of the spectacle of violence being used purely as a form of shallow entertaining - and, I've never seen anything wrong with that.

With Gamer, though, we have a film that clearly wants to offer something more than that - or, at least, it seems to for the first half, or so. For a couple of brief, though shining, moments early on, it even manages to succeed - briefly becoming a much more thoughtful sort of film as it explores the implications of its chosen themes. Of course, all of this just makes the abrupt change in tone all the more jarring - as the film, itself, becomes little more than a fairly conventional action film, and the whole experience begins to feel like a wasted opportunity.

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