Sunday, May 30, 2010

Game On

Yes, I watched Gamer. Yes, I know it was largely panned. Yes, the trailers looked poor and the movie seemed to be completely unimaginative. Yes, it seemed ridiculous, even. Yes, I had better options for movies to watch (Descent 2 being one of them). No, I'm not sure what I was thinking.

But I was curious. Here was another movie loosely based on the video game industry and reality shows (among other things) and a treatise about how jaded and unsympathetic our world may become if someone really wanted to take that next step.

Some time in the future, the real world sucks. It's a bleak place, with society in general mostly in the toilet. The only bright spots in the future are reality entertainment, created by multi-billionaire Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall). First, Castle created Society, a game not unlike the hugely popular Second Life in which the player takes control of a remote avatar and controls all their actions and interactions with others playing the game. Unlike the digital world of Second Life that people nowadays can subscribe to, however, those avatars are living, breathing people who are paid to be part of this fake reality.

We'll get back to Society later. The reason people tuned into this movie was Castle's other creation: Slayers. In Slayers, Death Row inmates are given the chance to compete in a real-life death match not unlike those in games like Team Fortress 2 or Day of Defeat. The idea is that if they survive 30 battles of Slayer, they get their prison sentences communed. The contestants don't control their own fates however, as their actions in-game are controlled by gamers on the outside. The best of these combatants is John "Kable" Tillman (Gerard Butler), an inmate we meet with just three games left until he can be released. His wife and daughter are on the outside, and are the only things keeping him sane. But even with freedom so close, as the story is told we learn that Ken Castle would very much rather not see Kable go free.

Gamer is a very different film. A large-budget film that feels like a movie half it's budget size, it portrays society in three different lights. The brightest of these shades is Society, where the colors are so vibrant, the sunlight so bright, that you can't help but feel it's fake and showy, which of course is exactly what was intended. The users in Society are portrayed as connoisseurs of the seven deadly sins, exposing themselves, fulfilling rape fantasies or setting up their avatar to suffer bodily harm and laugh as their blood spills from gashes. The people who would subject their bodies to this treatment are usually of the desperate variety, not happy with their predicament but so desperate to escape the cruel outside world that it seems largely appealing by comparison. On the other end of the spectrum is Slayers. It's a dark, gritty, violent existence, where color rarely permeates unless it's blood red. Death can come suddenly, and it's only by the skill of their controllers that the participants make it to the end, or the "Save Point". In between is real life, where it seems poverty is up and nobody seems happy unless they're watching or playing the latest reality PPV. It's arguably the bleakest of the three existences, as people are more than willing to escape into something else, and unwilling to change the things around them.

If there's anything I found surprising about Gamer, it's just how GOOD the movie actually is. The twin writing/directing of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank 1 & 2) is solid, especially the camera work, which was often done on the fly by either director. There are definitely some faults, but we'll get to those later. The casting, however, was the truly inspired part of this film. Of course Butler has since moved on to romantic comedies at this point, but this was his first big action hit after 300. He's really a force to behold both in his combat scenes and in his more insular scenes which are more of the film than you might go in expecting. Hall (Six Feet Under, Dexter) is fun as Castle, the villain. He really seems to enjoy being the bad guy here, and it's always good to have a "fun" villain. Amber Valetta (Hitch, Transporter 2) plays Angie, Kable's wife on the outside and works as an Avatar on Society to either pay the bills or escape reality, or both. She was truly the surprise of this film, as I never would have expected her to play this part with such depth, and there's a stark difference in her performance between when she is herself and when she's played by a lascivious user, as there should be. Kyra Sedgewick (The Closer, Justice League: A New Fronteir)  plays an unscrupulous TV reporter and talk show host who is seeking out Kable. Honestly, it's great to see her in a movie but her character is largely unimportant. At least she does it well. Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) is great as Kable's controller, a widely respected cyber-athlete who's only 17-years-old. He's portrayed as being pretty spoiled and naive in the beginning, but the character goes through changes as the story progresses and Lerman pulls it off very well. Christopher Brian "Ludacris" Bridges (Hustle & Flow, RocknRolla) rounds out the main cast, playing the leader of a (for lack of a better word) terrorist group who call themselves "Humanz" who oppose Castle's evil plans. Kable finds himself tugged between these two factions during the course of the film, and it's good that they are led by Hall and Brown, who are both charismatic and good to see on screen.

There were also a large number of recognizable D and E-List stars who made appearances throughout the film, and it was fun to recognize John Leguizamo (Spawn, Romeo & Juliet), Aaron Yoo (21, Friday the 13'th), Allison Lohman (Drag Me to Hell, Beowulf), Terry Crews (The Expendables, The Longest Yard), Keith David (Platoon, Mass Effect 1 & 2), Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes, Rocky Balboa), Sam Witwer (Battlestar Galactica, Dexter), John de Lancie (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate SG1), and Zoe Bell, who has yet to truly get out from under the shadow of the best damn car chase scene EVER (Death Proof). Even though most of these characters did little to move the pace of the story forward, it was good to see so many recognizable faces, even if they were most definitely not big stars.

Now onto the bad stuff. To be fair, I only have two gripes with this film, but they're big ones.

Gripe #1:  One-dimensional bad guys

Remember how I praised Michael C. Hall's performance? I meant every word. He did an amazing job with that character. The problem was the character was a third-rate James Bond villain, all posturing and posing, never one to miss overlong speeches detailing his great plans and how wonderful he is. Even a surprise song and dance number near the end doesn't make him any more deep or complex, and his mindless exposition makes me wish he at least had an interesting second in command. No such luck, as his cronies are even more boring than he is. At then end, after the day is saved, the second in command says to the hero: "Well played." Yes, he says THOSE exact WORDS. No excuse.

Which brings me to the second gripe:

Gripe #2: Bad ending

There's not really any excuse for how badly the movie ended. The story leading to it was actually pretty good, cloak and dagger mixed with bullets and explosions mixed with exploitation. But the end felt mostly anti-climactic, without anything original, charming or intelligent, followed with a cliche hero driving off into the sunset. For the story to have done so well to end on such a sour note is distressing, after I'd been so pleasantly surprised with the rest of the content.

If you combined Gamer's strengths with that of a more popular summer movie in '09, say Terminator Salvation, you might have had a fantastic movie on your hands. Instead, the duo known as Neveldine/Taylor have made us a merely okay film, with a strong first half, good acting, and great action sequences and camera angles but marred by an incomplete second half and cliche ending. I don't regret watching it.

I just regret watching it FIRST.


elmo said...

I'll probably see this because I love Dexter and, as you say, being largely panned means next to nothing. At the end of the G.I. Joe movie, I thought, "God help me I'd watch another one." And Crank 2, which I've yet to watch, looks batshit crazy.

Gianni said...

Just be prepared for a letdown of an ending, and you'll do just fine.