Is “Gamer” Mindless Action or Smart Social Commentary?

There are movies that you love because of their story, or their production, or the sheer gosh-darn goodness of the acting and directing. And then there are movies like Gamer, the socially conscious action-adventure flick from 2009 starring Gerard Butler (who’s not exactly going against type, here) and directed by the duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

That year was a banner one for Neveldine and Taylor, who released both Gamer and Crank (which, here at Fandor, we enjoy just a bit too much to feel truly guilty about). When we think about going “full” Neveldine and Taylor, Crank is the movie that comes to mind — it’s in that movie that they are at their most insane and over-the-top. It’s a break-neck, heart-stopping jolt of a movie. By these standards, Gamer seems almost… well, not “tame,” and not “restrained,” either. How about… brooding?

The gamer takes place in the near dystopian future, where advanced technology has made it possible to control real-life people as though they were your avatars in a computer game. Not only do “regular” gamers use this technology to play a kind of freaky take on The Sims or Second Life, but the technology has also been co-opted by the prison-industrial complex. For you see, in this bleak future, death row inmates have the opportunity to win their freedom if they survive thirty televised games of “Slayer,” which is basically your standard first-person shooter with real blood and viscera. It’s reminiscent of movies like Running Man or Death Race 2000, with a touch of social satire that feels a bit like Starship Troopers or Idiocracy. To be sure, none of these movies are, by definition, “good,” but they all certainly have their charms. And a few of them also turned out to be strangely prescient.

After all, Idiocracy, comically moribund though it may be, definitely forecasted our current celebrity-in-chief, and movies like Running Man and Death Race 2000 prognosticated the advent of reality television. Similarly, Gamer tapped into the toxicity of certain online communities that would, five years later, come to a head during the Gamergate controversy.

For the blissfully unaware, Gamergate began with a campaign of targeted hate directed at indie developer Zoë Quinn. Following positive reviews of her game Depression Quest, Quinn was met with misogynistic backlash in the form of online harassment, doxing, and death threats. Why? Because for certain members of the online video game community the idea of a woman game developer, let alone a successful, innovative one, seemed like a sort of threat. Not only that but for this segment of gamers, whose narrow view of humanity, let alone their view of interactive entertainment, only encompassed men and “real games” like first-person shooters, it was inconceivable that a game with a social conscience, that attempted to approach deep emotional themes, could receive the kind of critical acclaim Depression Quest did.

In the world of Gamer, this subset of the online community has become the majority, and misogyny and extreme violence are accepted as long as they are indulged through an avatar. Meanwhile, people of lesser means only seem to be able to find steady work as “actors” in these video games. In this way, Gamer is not only a commentary on online toxicity, but also on socio-economic disparity.

Let me pump the brakes here. While yes, all of these undercurrents can be found running through Gamer, they are definitely not the focus. This movie is one hundred percent about explosions, over-sexualization, and Gerard Butler shooting things. It kind of hurts the movie’s status as “commentary” to lean in as hard as it does. Seriously, the set design looks like someone got drunk, watched Blade Runner, and said, “I want that,” only to wake up the next morning to find that they’d broken into a high school A/V club, and drunkenly slapped together a few city streets with a combination of Photoshop, iMovie, and the paints they stole from the art class a few doors down the hall.

In theaters, you might have watched this movie and seen a dystopia, but that doesn’t mean that the idiot sitting three rows behind you wasn’t experiencing their personal utopia. That being said, Gamer does deserve credit for tapping into and exposing online toxicity. And beyond that, there are some genuinely excellent performances to be found here, namely by Michael C. Hall and Kyra Sedgwick, two pretty great actors potentially doomed to live out most of their careers on television rather than the silver screen. Indeed, the few scenes they share are some of the best in this movie. It’s also easy to see a direct line between Hall’s interpretation of Gamer’s Ken Castle, the technologically ingenious multi-millionaire with shady morality, and Oscar Isaac’s similar role in the much more critically lauded Ex Machina, right down to the strangely surreal dance numbers each of them perform in their respective movies.

As for the writing and direction, let’s just say that the team of Neveldine and Taylor know what they’re doing. The script feels like it was written by a fifteen-year-old after consuming too much Red Bull and staying up forty-eight hours straight watching The Matrix Reloaded — particularly the dance-slash-orgy scene. What results is a smattering of dialogue seemingly lifted from and a directing style that makes heavy use of extremely quick cuts and Dutch angles, which, even if you’re not looking for them, easily communicate energy and discomfort.

So in the canon of sci-fi-as-social-commentary films, where does Gamer rank? Higher than you might expect from viewing the trailer alone. This is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts: Gamer is at once gratuitous, fun, and strangely smart, and it’s bolstered by two “all-in” performances by Sedgwick and Hall. In short, if you missed Gamer the first time around and you don’t mind a bit of blood-splatter on your camera lens, press reset and try again. It definitely earns its status as a guilty favorite.

If you like Gerard Butler as much as you like Kubrick then you, like us, are not perfect. But, you are in luck, because we have just the series for you! Check out the first article in our Guilty Favorites series, “How I stopped Worrying and Learned to Love ‘The Lake House.’” And if you need to cleanse your palate after a few B-movies, we got you. Be sure to watch our more “educational” videos on Chekhov’s Gun, MacGuffin, and the Deus Ex Machina.
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