Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Movie Review: Gamer (2009)

Today I welcome back Leah from What Indie Nights? to talk a little bit about one of my favourite movies of recent times, Gamer, in what is probably the best thing to ever get posted on my blog.

Greetings BBBGers, and thanks for having me. I'm here today to talk to you about a little movie released in 2009 called Gamer, a short, hard and fast dystopian cyberpunk masterpiece that pushed its way bodily to the top of my favourites list from the moment I experienced its first heart-pounding scene. You may not have heard of it, or you may have passed it right by, because this movie flew so far under everyone's radars I'm surprised it didn't hit a mountain range, or a really tall tree. It was generally panned or ignored by everyone who mattered or cared, and as it was released around the same time as an overblown Bruce Willis snore-fest (do you remember Surrogates? Yeah.) it just didn't get anywhere near the amount of attention it deserved. Which is a crying shame, because to me it was the Matrix of the new millennium, when cyberculture had worked itself out into the bland, perverse, advertisement-filled play-world we know it as today, and big business is taking advantage of the online masses in ways we don't really like to think about. Also, it's a gasp-for-breath action movie. And the soundtrack rocks.

Gamer takes place in a world where lives are lived online to an extent we can only dream about. Or have nightmares about. The number one entertainment destination is Society, a Second Life-esque wish fulfilment game where the characters on screen are as real as the people controlling their every move at the computer. Down and out, desperate types can earn a living by having their brains altered with nanotechnology - called nanex - to allow them to become living game components, at the mercy of the wealthy types who can pay to take control of live subjects and play with them any way they want. Sex, drugs, blood, raves, dancing, kink and more, all real, all at the push of a button. This is Second Life as envisioned by a cynic, or a realist. No-one's pretending this is anything but a way for the wealthy disconnected to get off.

The world of Gamer has been dramatically altered by the advent of Society. Its massive popularity has clearly had an impact on every aspect of people's lives, from the entertainment news hosts who swear constantly and smoke on air, to the abundance of nudity and generally vulgar behaviour on display on the TV screens on every street corner. Television itself is EVERYWHERE, vomiting advertisements, programs and pictures into everyone's faces all the time. Social morals have been freed, it would seem, by this breakthrough in technology. People no longer care (or have any say in) what they see in the media, nor where they see it. In fact, the media is reflecting their own behaviour back to them, tenfold, and they're responding with loyalty and purchasing power. A kind of reverse-Big Brother, where the people are doing the watching instead of being watched, and losing almost as much freedom.

The reclusive tech genius behind all this is Ken Castle - played to off-centre, unhinged perfection by Michael C Hall - a billionaire with a shady past who has just introduced his new pay-per-view hit TV series, Slayers. Taking the 'real people' concept to the next level, he has struck a deal with the failing US prison systems, whereby death-row inmates are offered the chance of a full pardon if they can survive 30 rounds of violent, bloody gameplay, televised weekly around the globe. These i-cons (get it?) are played by members of the public, who become as famous as the characters they play as the weeks go by. With this runaway success, Castle has single handedly saved the military-industrial complex in America. His i-cons, as well as being convicted murderers and rapists, are volunteers to the scheme, so there's no need to feel guilty about their horrifyingly gory deaths. It's a win-win scenario. A similar concept was explored pretty thoroughly in the Arnie thriller Running Man, where the setting was an 80s cheeseball game show hosted by a pyschopathic ratings whore, diverting the public attention from international resource shortages.

Gamer's central theme is control: control of i-cons by gamers, control of the masses by opiates, control of people by corporations, control of the media by money. Everyone's part of the system here. What Gamer shows us is that control is not just Big Brother, not just Stalin or Mao or Kim Jong Il at the head of a cowering populace. Control, in our Western lives, in our futures, is about consent, coercion, and choice. The masses, when we see them, are all complicit in these systems. They have chosen to participate in Society, to watch Slayers and cheer on the violent, bloody deaths of real humans, to submit to wall-to-wall, cradle-to-grave, home-to-work-to-play advertising. Life in Gamer is insidiously saturated with media, and the people love it. So much so that they don't see what they're getting themselves into, so that they don't want to be saved, not even by the rogue group of hackers who can see past the glitz of Castle's entertainment industry to the chilling heart of the matter. Castle is offering instant gratification on a colossal scale, and all he wants in return is brand loyalty of a somewhat more permanent nature than the people are used to. But, as he says, isn't it possible that many people out there would prefer to be controlled? Not to have to make any more difficult choices or worry about the future? Control to some people would be welcome relief.

Life in Castle's world takes on the aspect of black and white, almost literally. The world of Slayers is black, gritty, filthy and bloody, a war zone in every sense. The prison yard where the inmates work is pure, chalk white, bleaching everything to dust. The 'real world', the world of everyday, the streets, buildings and offices of dull regular life, is filmed almost on a greyscale, overexposed and drained. Nothing to see here. All the action, all the colour and life, is in Society, where everything is hyperreal, from the improbably green grass to the neon wigs on characters and everything in between. As much of the story is told in colour schemes as it is in dialogue, and it's a pretty bleak tale. 

What truly gives Gamer the shine on its dystopian undercoat is the insertion of weird, quirky little asides that colour the personalities of the characters and tilt the balance of reality just a little beyond bearability. A conversation mid-interrogation about different kinds nut butters (peanut, macadamia, pistachio...); a song and dance number where Castle sends chorus-line Slayers at our hero Kable, but not before they've danced in unison to his unsettling rendition of 'I've Got You Under My Skin'; a virtual room where the walls are one giant screen and the interaction (and spam) is all-encompassing; the all-too-real conversation about advanced technology that can convert memories into raw audiovisual data:
"But that kind of tech's not supposed to be available for a decade!"
"They'll have better shit than this in Best Buy in 18 months."

Gamer inhabits a world that is truly not too distant from our own, where technology has advanced (believably, might I add, in direct contravention of the Hollywood rule that states that tech in futuristic movies must be laughably unlike that of the present day) to a point at which it invades and runs most aspects of human life, where humanity is flinging itself bodily onto the bonfire of entertainment and interactivity with no thought for the consequences to their freedom, to their individuality, to their very souls. It is a true dystopia, a reminder to us all, and boy, is it entertaining...


  1. Well, this is definitely the most serious look at "Gamer" I have come across. Personally, I found this movie either too ambitious or too stupid to enjoy sober. Interesting take, though.

    On the Surrogates side of things, I thought that movie had some potential and just ended up being bad. If memory serves, the first 30-40 minutes were solid.

    Ick. I can't believe I just defended Surrogates.

    1. Ambitious, absolutely. I think that must be where it lost people who were expecting another 300 or Surrogates.
      It seems to have been a wrong place, wrong time issue.
      Thanks for taking the time to read!