Gamer

(Sight & Sound, BFI)

The future. World society has been transformed by the billionaire pioneer Ken Castle, the creator of a new kind of game. Real people are subjected to brain surgery, then remote-controlled by players on computers. Castle’s most controversial game, Slayers, involves players pitting death-row convicts against each other in bloody battles.

Gamer, directed by Crank’s Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, is a film of manic, high-speed, extremely violent visuals. In a similarly manic way, Gamer samples and conflates other films, not with the fannish relish of Tarantino but rather the bloody-minded relentlessness of Michael Bay. The film envisages a world in which gamers physically control other people through their computer screens, thanks to mind-control devices. As dystopian ideas ago, it’s more daft than unnerving, suited to a short comedy sketch rather than a feature film. Yet it lets Gamer’s directors mash up Tron (1982), Robocop, The Running Man (both 1987), Strange Days (1995) and left-field fantasies Avalon (2001) and Being John Malkovich (1999). For a genre compilation album, it’s eclectic.

Films such as Gamer are denounced for claiming to satirise the same numbing screen violence that they peddle to the audience. At times, though, Gamer seems perversely honest. We see numerous innocent people killed thanks to the hero’s (Gerard Butler’s) actions, contrasting with the anonymously exploding cars in the recent G.I. Joe. We also see the chronically obese, grotesquely drooling, gamers killing and screwing each other through their computer alter-egos, living down to all the media images of monstrous geeks (though media pundits will doubtless condemn Gamer for fattism). Gamer’s gory battles are distanced by picture drop-outs and distortions, their raggedness suggesting not vérité but processed consumer images.

Quite blatantly, though, Gamer sells out on its ideas. (How much more provocative if its gamers were controlling soldiers in an international war, not convicts in a manufactured battle). Paul Verhoeven would have aligned the violence and cynicism, but Neveldine and Taylor just rip off The Running Man’s dopey plotline (itself a watered-down version of a Stephen King novella, which ended with a plane hitting a skyscraper). A stolid Gerard Butler lacks the over-the-top absurdity that suited him in 300 (2007), leaving Gamer to be stolen by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall as an evil tycoon. Late in the film, Hall puppeteers convicts into a performance of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” in a frustrating glimpse of how good Gamer might have been.