by HELEN GEIB
Gamer is a better movie than the recent Death Race, but not so much better that the comparison does not come readily to mind. And that’s not a good thing.
The film is set in a dystopian, not too far in the future America and revolves around a bloodsport called “Slayers.” Death row inmates are given guns with live ammunition, set down in a mock urban-wasteland controlled environment, and told to shoot their way to the designated safe point if they want to live. Survive 30 trips and you win a get out of jail free card. The “star” of the game is Kable (Gerard Butler): ex-soldier, a variant on the wrongfully convicted innocent man, devoted husband and father, targeted for elimination by the powers that be, and determined to escape.
The clever conceit of Gamer is that “Slayers” is a combat video game made real. The game’s players on the outside control the every movement of the marionette-killers on the inside. It’s survival of the fittest, but the people being judged are not the ones who pay the price of failure (or of a success built on mass murder). Meanwhile the show is broadcast live for the pleasure of the teeming masses. While “Slayers” provides the violence, “Society” provides the sex. “Society” is the ugly-future version of Second Life, in which players turn their fellow-human-being avatars into sideshow freaks and whores. Kable’s wife Angie (Amber Valletta) is one of its mannequin-victims.
The actors have little to work with, although Butler nevertheless brings his characteristic intensity to the hero’s part. The one-dimensional characters are either overly familiar genre types or gaming-culture caricatures. The former includes Kable and his wife, the crusading members of resistance movement Humanz, and the film’s villain Castle (Michael C. Hall), the evil genius inventor of the implant technology and corporate titan behind the commercial exploitation of the games. The latter includes Kable and Angie’s operators.
Despite being only about 90 minutes, Gamer feels really underwritten, and the weak characterization is especially problematic. The story creates some potentially interesting character dynamics; for example, the relationship between Kable and his teenage operator that fluctuates repeatedly from antagonistic to cooperative. Like other character-based aspects of the film, this relationship languishes undeveloped, its dramatic and comic potential largely unexploited.
Gamer scavenges characters, themes, and plot points from a number of other films, among other popular culture sources. Many of those characters, themes, and plot points are good movie material, but this particular movie doesn’t do enough with any of them. The script tosses around a lot of sound bytes about free will, the dark side of technology and underbelly of capitalistic society, exploitation of the powerless, and the like while the camera lingers on bloodied corpses and the naked flesh of degraded women. I could overlook the superficiality, but not the clunky exposition or the fact that the pseudo-intellectuality gets in the way of what works about the movie: the action and the dark comedy. The best parts of Gamer are the pulse-pounding action sequences in and out of the game environments and the unoriginal, but still corrosive satire of contemporary media and consumer culture.
The film was written and directed by Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine (or as they credit themselves, directed by Taylor/Neveldine and written by Taylor & Neveldine), the duo responsible for the improbably entertaining Crank. That film had manic energy and a simple, unpretentious clothesline plot. This film needed more of the first quality. It might well have been more successful if it had also mirrored the second by adopting a more straightforward surviving-the-game-then-taking-out-the-bad-guy plot. Gamer has some real entertainment value, but it doesn’t know well enough to stick to what it does best.