Battling Butler and Wilting Willis
Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which has recently crawled one space higher on the Sugababes reserve list. Were you to have really nothing worthwhile to do and dive back into the tottering, mouldy piles of 24LAS back issues which perpetually threaten to clog up my virtual office space, you would discover in the Christmas 2003 edition a heartfelt plea for a talented young actor named Gerard Butler to be released from the near-obscurity a succession of bad script choices had landed him in. Fast forward a few years, and good fortune and a lot of shouting whilst wearing leather shorts have indeed made Butler a bona fide star - it's just a pity the column was on hiatus when it happened. Anyway, he's back on the big screen now as the leading man of Neveldine and Taylor's Gamer.
Gamer is not a movie afraid to partake freely from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches. In the future the world is dominated by powerful corporations, but nobody minds that much as they're all obsessed with computer games - plus ca change and all that, but the twist is that in these games, rather than controlling a sprite on a screen, you control a real live person whose motor cortex has been injected with nanotechnological cells. The game at the centre of the film is Slayers, where death-row inmates are equipped with high-powered automatic weaponry and let loose on each other under the remote control of computer gamers from around the world. If one of the cons survives for thirty sessions in a row, he wins his freedom. Current champion Kable (Butler), under the control of star player Simon (Logan Lerman), is getting perilously close to releasing himself. The mogul running the game, Castle (Michael C. Hall, in a role that demands he use anything up to thirty percent of his talent), has his own reasons for wanting Kable silenced, so it's rather unfortunate that one of those improbably well-resourced subversive networks so often found in this kind of film set about springing Kable and stopping Castle's plans.
As you can probably surmise, unlikelihoods pile up on unlikelihoods in quite dizzying quantities as Gamer proceeds (my favourite being when Kable fuels his getaway vehicle by chugging a bottle of vodka and then widdling in the petrol tank), especially as this film is supposedly set only a few years into the future. The story is so implausible (a less charitable individual might prefer 'incoherent') that to begin with it's a little difficult to follow, something not helped by the onslaught of whip pans, smash cuts, handheld camerawork and crazy-paving editing the viewer is bombarded with. To be honest, your reviewer is feeling rather old and embarrassed for not twigging straightaway that this is the signature style of the game-savvy directors who perpetrated the indescribable Crank movies.
Gamer aspires to be rather more serious than either of the Cranks, but it's not appreciably more mature. I would normally assume with a story like this that the directors' message was basically 'Isn't the way we're entertained by sex and violence just awful?' - which, of course, would be immediately and terminally undermined by the fact that the film is being marketed on the strength of its sex and violence - but it seems to me that this is hardly the kind of line likely to be taken by the guys who in the past have gleefully given us Jason Statham sticking a shotgun up someone's backside before frottaging an old lady. Any serious moral condemnation Gamer appears to be making is surely only a trick of the light, or a convenient pretext should this movie itself be taken to task for its content. Similarly, the potentially fruitful subtext of the movie - that people behave on-line in ways they'd never dream of doing in real-life - is only really examined in passing.
I was going to observe that Gamer is the first movie in history to be named after its target audience, which if nothing else is considerate, but I'm not entirely sure the computer-gaming community will appreciate being depicted as they are here. Simon comes across as a far from likeable spoilt nerd, and he's by far the most positive specimen on offer. The only other real candidate is a morbidly obese slob living in squalor whose life appears to revolve around using his computer to engage in vicarious sex acts. Not exactly guaranteed to get the crowd on your side, guys. By extension the rest of the gaming community is depicted as morally bankrupt and/or depraved, quite happy to see human beings blown away for entertainment (in Slayers) or used and abused in grotesque and personal ways (in Society, the movie's version of something like Second Life). One gets a strong sense that Neveldine and Taylor have a low opinion of human nature. (I'm inclined to wonder what Castle's version of Hootoo would look like, but it would probably be in a rather lower-octane movie than this.)
I'm sounding quite negative about this film, and I feel I have to, and yet, and yet... Crank and its sequel were by most civilised standards utterly horrible, but also pieces of bravura film-making and hugely enjoyable in their way. Gamer doesn't have the same freewheeling absurdity to make it fly, and the plot itself isn't really anything special once you take away the admittedly striking visuals. The actors all do as well as they can with underwritten parts and the plotline about Castle's hidden agenda in wanting Kable dead feels very much like an afterthought. The sequences in the Slayers games are surprisingly brief and confusing - the rules of the game are never made entirely clear. I wouldn't make a very good Rollerball player (to choose a relevant example), but I at least know how to play it - in Slayers I would only have the faintest clue what to do beyond just shooting everyone in sight. The faintest sign of the spectre of Stanley Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange wafts through the film, but this may largely simply be due to an eye-catching musical-routine-come-graphic-punch-up near the climax, which surprises more than nearly anything else on offer.
Gamer is a bit too frenetic to pass muster as an actual thriller or piece of SF, but too thematically dense to be dismissible as simply a piece of high-energy fluff. I found myself getting desensitised to its various excesses rather rapidly and the sheer implausibility of the story really stopped me from getting involved in it. Butler and Hall do their considerable best with it, and the direction and visuals are frequently striking, but on the whole, given the talent involved this is a bit of a disappointment.
Speaking of living vicariously through your computer... one of the truisms of proper SF is that it really says more about the time it's written than the time it's set in. One of the ways this manifests in movies is that technology just tends to be enormously exaggerated versions of things we've already got rather than anything wholly innovative (not many pre-1990 movies saw the internet coming, for example). Unusually, this isn't quite true of Jonathan Mostow's Surrogates, a thriller which still shares quite a few similarities with Gamer. In a (different) unspecified near future, life has been transformed by a single new technology developed by a reclusive boffin (James Cromwell this time) and opposed by rebels, the refusenik Luddites being led by a rather hammy Ving Rhames here.
The technology in question is surrogacy, whereby people spend all their time at home with their brains hooked up to an android replica which goes out and lives their life for them. The utopia this has supposedly created (no crime, no accidental deaths, and so on) is disrupted when somebody finds a way to kill people via their link with the androids, liquidising their brains (I caught half an episode of What Katie Did Next recently so I have a good idea how this feels). On the case are FBI agents Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell (and before you smirk, yes, Bruce's android does have hair).
Once again improbabilities abound - we're told ninety-eight percent of the global population routinely uses an extremely sophisticated robotic proxy and the associated high-spec communications network. Ninety-eight percent! Who's paying for all this stuff? Then again someone at one point implies that the total population is only a shade over one billion so there must be a bit more cash in circulation. Even so, why the fall in the crime rate? (And so on.)
Anything like this would surely utterly transform the world beyond recognition, and to be fair the film runs with the ball as far as it can, showing amongst other neat moments a future where war is almost literally a computer game - armies sprawled in front of massed computer screens, 'dead' soldiers simply being issued a new robot and sent back into battle - but it's beyond the scope (not to mention the budget) of Surrogates to explore the full possibilities of its central idea. So we end up with a world with astoundingly advanced robotics, cybernetics, and data processing systems, but where the cars, guns, and phones are virtually unchanged and people still use USB sticks. That said, the movie does make use of its central idea intelligently in terms of both plot (it soon becomes apparent that you simply can't be sure who's connected to a particular android) and character (Willis goes out on the street 'in the flesh' for the first time in ages and finds he's well outside his comfort zone). There's interesting, if not exactly subtle stuff going on here, although it perhaps does the 'shocking contrast between inhumanly perfect android and its unexpectedly decrepit operator' bit once or twice too often.
I must confess I turned up to Surrogates expecting something as bland and mechanical as the titular machines, and to begin with I thought I was right - Mostow's direction isn't exactly inspired, while all the actors playing their robotic avatars seem to feel obliged to give blatant 'I'm really an android' performances. Add to this the subtle but still intrusive CGI used to create the surrogate characters, and initially at least the film has a rather odd, tranquilised quality. But it improves quite considerably as it goes on. The thriller plot whizzes along cheerfully, it's neatly played by most of the cast (and Rosamund Pike is probably slightly better than her part deserves as Willis' traumatised wife), and there are a couple of well-executed if sub-Matrix action sequences where a fleshy mortals pursue or are pursued by souped-up androids.
I'm still not completely convinced about the climax (without wishing to spoil the ending, and despite what the film itself states, I can't believe Bruce Willis' character wouldn't end up in court on charges of multiple manslaughter), and the film never quite rises beyond the level of simply competent at any point, but it focuses on telling an effective and interesting story without getting all in a tizzy about shocking the audience or stuffing every frame with a different kind of directorial razzle-dazzle. In short, it feels like a film made for grown-ups, and of the two films we've just discussed it's Surrogates I'd recommend you went to see.