10 January 2014

Gamer (2009)

Gamer Too Busy and On the Nose for Its Own Good
By Kristin Battestella

I’ve watched the 2009 futuristic, technological, computers, nanites, gaming, SIMS meets The Running Man film Gamer numerous times. However, I can never make up my mind whether it is good, bad, or too muddled and trite for its own good.

Convicted murderer John Tillman (Gerard Butler) competes in Slayers, a televised fight to the death shooter game created by Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) and made possible by his nanites technology. These nanites replace brain cells, allowing the prisoners in the Slayers competition to be controlled by real world gamers, and teen gaming wiz Simon (Logan Lerman) controls Kable – as Tillman is known in the game. Tillman competes to achieve his freedom, which is granted to the inmate who survives thirty Slayers battles. His wife Angie (Amber Valetta) has lost custody of their daughter Delia (Brighid Fleming) and works in Society, another game created by Castle where gamers control participants in an excessively social and sexual community. Reporter Gina Parker Smith (Kyra Sedgwick) interviews billionaire Castle, but Brother (Ludacris) and Trace (Alison Lohman), leaders of the Humanz organization hoping to expose Castle’s corruption and intention to control people against their will, hack Smith’s show and give Simon a cheat to communicate with Kable during Slayers. With their help, Tillman hopes to escape the game, save his wife and daughter, and bring down Castle’s technological regime.  

Gamer’s writers, directors, producers, and rollerblading cameramen Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) create an obvious piece of “I see what you did there” action and social commentary. Sometimes it works, but more often than not, it doesn’t. This cluttered message advocates against media manipulation and technological control of individuality, but Gamer plays into just such a mentality with its constant need for action, cool, awesome, badass, sex, and violence. Almost all camera shots are ridiculously short – often no more than five seconds in length – and these hectic visuals ruin any prophetic potential the plot may have regarding our increasing obsessions with instant mass technology. Despite being just over five years old, Gamer’s supposed near future, harsh graphics, and rock n roll, in your face design are already very dated. Perhaps it wasn’t intended to predict future technology as some productions have, but contemporary simulation games look better then Gamer’s insane editing and so hectic, on acid first person shooter attempts. Honestly, I don’t play heady video games like this because I find them obnoxiously loud and dizzying – so a film trying to out do what is occasionally seizure inducing for some feels as if its entire structure misses the mark.

Even the tense, dramatic scenes in Gamer have unnecessary zooms, pans, pacing or distracting movement. Toss in those graphics everywhere and technology within computers within game shows and the viewer wants to shield one’s eyes when watching. Flashing lights, bright photography, and fast special effects never give the audience a breather. Again, the directors may have intended this hectic design to be a parable on our constant, multi tasking, instant, busy busy, media and interconnected ways, but it’s can’t see the forest for the trees too much. Gamer never slows down to fulfill its tale. Up close camera shots on foods, mouths, and gluttonous eating are intriguing statements in the making, but these subtle suggestions on consumerism, oral fixations, over sharing, and indulgences are lost among the visual hysteria. Extensive video extras, interactive blu-ray designs, and detailed commentaries help clarify the dark satirical vision and behind the scenes intentions, but one shouldn’t leave the crutch of your film to today’s auxiliary materials. The story here has promise, but it remains both too convoluted and thin thanks to the extreme and abrupt filmmaking.  

I must say, Gerard Butler (300) has such pretty eyes and they really stand out in the hyper saturated color of Gamer. Sadly, we don’t really see much else of Tillman, for the camera never stops to take pause on his pain for more than a few seconds. Pull back from the askew up close shots, please; zoom out so we can see the technological natural overwhelming the man. Gamer doesn’t let the audience make up its mind or relate to the characters because it’s intense photography and busy camerawork instead tells us what to think and to think fast on it. Slow motion flashbacks and quiet moments are too few and far between and also fall prey to off kilter, artsy, dreamlike filmmaking. Normally, such differentiation would be effective, but the never let up visuals take away from anything the cast creates. Are the flashback and the final scene actually the same footage – possibly implying there are far more nanite twists and butchery in Tillman’s head ala Blade Runner? Does Tillman himself no longer know what’s real or implanted? Such a potentially glorious plot spin is erroneously left to herky-jerky blink and you miss it film. Butler is built and action on form in Gamer for sure, and the viewer can root for him effortlessly enough even if we also question his physicality and some of the preposterous or thoughtless things the script has him doing. Again, Gamer may be trying to make statements regarding how we applaud Kable’s in game killing of real people but then balk at Tillman’s dismissed taking of innocent lives in his familial quest. He’s a public hero but his personal actions aren’t his fault? We’re not supposed to blame him for his murders? Are we to ask ourselves how we would react in the same situations? Gamer neither intelligently asks nor answers these questions. Wise viewers might deduce such things, but the lack of character focus cuts the film’s nose to spite its face. He can bring it, and what should have been a heavy performance by Butler ends up chopped off at the knees. Heaven forbid we see emotion from Tillman for too long because we must get back to the nonsensical Slayers battlefield and seeing Kable do what Kable does best. The dizzying action may be fun for a little while, but unlike its ensemble potential, the mayhem isn’t enough to carry Gamer.

Likewise, Michael C. Hall’s (Dexter) performance is a confusing, somewhat disgusting parody, and I’m not quite sure whom Gamer is trying to satire with the role. Bill Gates is mentioned onscreen in technological and financial comparison to Castle, but despite what you make think of Microsoft, Gates is a charitable guy, nothing like this skivvy megalomaniac. Why does he want to control millions of people and make them maim, rape, and kill? Some of Hall’s scenes are just too laughable for such terrors. We’re fully aware he’s having fun with the performance instead of investing more complexity – the script and his somewhat limited appearance leave Hall little room to maneuver. His fans will enjoy the sing along sardonics, but was that kind of hammy really necessary? We get the “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” lyrical wink and the ironically up tempo number for such a violent scene. Is it supposed to be comical or profound and pointing the finger at desensitization? Castle’s over the top fun feels contrary to any statements the movie is attempting, and again the audience is left wondering what to make of the polarizing design of Gamer. Is Castle’s wacky summation a political cartoon? I don’t think action audiences expect to see this kind of commentary – Gamer looks like such an in your face shoot ‘em up after all. I mean, Ludacris is here! The rapper turned Fast & Furious 6 star has potential and represents perhaps the most intriguing possibilities in Gamer, but the Humanz hacking hip overtakes the organization’s underlying motivations and critical but barely there presence. Brother feels more like a type and a means to an end for Tillman rather than a leader with real goals and plans. An entire movie could have been made about the Humanz – even if that would be a bit Johnny Mnemonic-ish, it might have been better than the wasted themes here.

Amber Valetta (Revenge) also feels mistreated in Gamer as Tillman’s Society working wife Angie. Her forced upon her nineties style is all icky colors and ugly, mismatched garishness. Extreme but quick up close shots show Angie’s pain and discomfort, and these gaudy visuals should represent the antisocial, gluttonous control of her gaming handler. However, once again, the fast montages and absurd filming make it nearly impossible to enjoy the performances. One wonders why Valetta took such a demeaning part, as Angie bears the brunt of Society’s depravity. What’s wrong with all these people? Society has so much in your face sex, nudity, neon, and apathy that it’s almost too much like real life. Props for the prediction, sure, but it doesn’t make Gamer entertaining, much less let the personal of the tale become profound. Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) also suffers with too little to do as an initially hard-hitting anything for the scope reporter who seemingly changes her tune. I don’t really care for found footage movies, but more documentary or media styled filmmaking from her perspective might have helped the audience find a voyeuristic focus – unlike Gamer’s in game point of view that just has us ducking for cover. Drag Me to Hell’’s talented Alison Lohman (who married director Mark Neveldine and hasn’t worked since) fairs no better as Humanz activist Trace. While I don’t think anyone expected Gamer to be a vehicle for strong women, the sexy in Society and the uneven wife, mother, working woman, and renegade queen roles end up forgettable despite the intelligent and serious possibilities.

Ironically, I don’t have much to say about Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson) as Simon, the gamer controlling Kable. Some posters, press, and trailers for Gamer kind of give the impression that the film is, you know, all about them. I’m glad the film remains a solid R and doesn’t go for some juvenile bonding experience, indeed. However, the uneven distribution of his character time and plot leaves Simon coming off as an entitled, fame seeking little shit obsessed with special peanut butters. Are we supposed to relate to this smug kid because we are in an age where such internet punks are a dime a dozen? Simon has a tricked out pad, high tech toys, and girls flashing him, but he becomes a scared little wussy once Kable stops killing people at his command. I didn’t miss him when he disappears from Gamer – unlike John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros.). His poorly named Freek is the obligatory crazy inmate, but the character is an unusual friend for Tillman and provides some measure of dialogue and reflection on the Slayers insanity. Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris) and Keith David (Pitch Black) also remain stereotypical despite more unresolved opportunities about sociopathic prisoners uninfluenced by nanite control and federal agents investigating Humanz. My goodness I look at Gamer and see enough potential for a Slayers television series, yet it seems like the directors were more satisfied with throwing the paint at the canvas and calling it art regardless of the talent or tales possible.

Gamer could have been many things. It could have been a straightforward action story about the Slayers game – that is the only thing that would make the fanatical film design workable. Then again, Gamer offers an intelligent science fiction allegory that deserved to be bleak and subdued with noir lighting, black and white photography, and depressing reflections on the devoid nature of technological mind control. Was this supposed to be about what the game does to the people or how desensitizing the game is itself? Heck, why film the Society sex and Slayers violence at all – because no one would go see such a serious action picture without today’s all the rage? There are merits and provocative themes here. Unfortunately, Gamer’s need to compete with our instant blast a minute media lifestyles looks like a bad video game and overtakes any plot potential – playing into the very thing it appears to be preaching against. In a few years, maybe the outlook on this film will change, but as of now, Gamer looks like the premium example as to why writers, directors, producers, and cameramen being one in the same is far, far too many hats for two people to wear. Fans of the cast or big action pictures can certainly watch Gamer for the in your face violence and candy visuals, but other highbrow audiences or mainstream viewers may not get past the first few herky-jerky moments. Did I miss the point of what the creators were trying to achieve here? Perhaps, but they weren’t exactly clear about what Gamer’s motivations are either. Take this tale with a grain of salt indeed – and a Dramamine. You’re going to need it.

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