Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With Tomb Raider in theaters Friday, Ready Player One screening at SXSW, and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle now on home-viewing platforms, we’re looking back on “video game movies.” The catch: None of them are based on real games.
Outside of the trap-filled action environments of Paul W.S. Anderson, the most intriguing cinematic take-offs of video game style have been more existential than aesthetic: stories that riff on the relationship between players and player characters while poking at the limits of a game’s reality. Edge Of Tomorrow twists a restart structure into Groundhog Day-esque karmic repetition. eXistenZ grotesquely parodies the logic of classic adventure game puzzles and dialogue trees. But what about Gamer, the little-loved Gerard Butler vehicle written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the guys who made the game-spoofing Crank and Crank: High Voltage? Set in a satirical future where players use brain implants to control actual humans in potentially deadly live-action games, the movie hides a creepy speculative premise beneath a surface of frenetic vulgarity: game characters as an indignant under-class exploited by players for kicks.
Cast (as per usual) for his scowl, Butler stars as John Tillman, a death-row inmate who has volunteered to act as a player-controlled character in the popular live-fire multiplayer shooter Slayers, which promises a full pardon to anyone who can survive 30 matches. In the game, Tillman’s character is known as “Kable,” and is controlled by the teenage pro gamer Simon Silverton (Logan Lerman). They’re just a few matches away from the top prize when the megalomaniacal mogul Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) decides to introduce a non-player-controlled maniac (a scene-stealing Terry Crews) into the game. So, with the help of an underground network, Tillman/Kable escapes, uncovers a conspiracy, and sets off to find his wife, Angie (Amber Valletta). She’s lost custody of their daughter and is now eking out a humiliating living as an avatar in Society, a live-action MMO where she’s controlled by a proverbial basement-dwelling slob who makes her grind robotically while wearing skimpy outfits.
Apart from Hall given an opportunity to villainously chew scenery, the plot—something about mind control, cover-ups, and a revolution, with Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the world’s drowsiest militant—is the least interesting thing about Gamer. But isn’t it just like a game to marry appealing mechanics to a kill-a-thon with a cackling big bad? (Come to think of it, isn’t it terrifically self-reflexive that so many of the most ambitious games have villains who are computers, puppet masters, or some combination of the two?) Neveldine and Taylor’s style is hyperactive, overloaded with hectic violence, sleaze, and saturation effects—though, unlike most of the other rabid cutters of the time, they actually know how to frame a shot. It flaunts its cartoonish crassness—say, in a scene where Butler’s hero steals an ethanol truck by puking and pissing vodka into the gas tank. But it’s the substitution of flesh-and-blood people for virtual avatars—a very different kind of live-action video game from the one played by Jason Statham’s unkillable Chev Chelios in the Crank films—that gives Gamer a subversive center. If our game characters had minds of their own, they’d think we were assholes.
Availability: Gamer is available to rent or purchase digitally through Amazon, iTunes, VUDU, and the other major services. It can also be obtained on DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library.