First released in 2009 right on the heels of the sequel to Crank, the film that introduced writer/director team Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s distinctive frenetic style, Gamer seemed a strangely subdued addition to their oeuvre. Now available in 3D, the added depth is striking but purely visual, standing in stark contrast to the film’s thematic and narrative superficiality. Although the thrilling action sequences are enhanced by the new format, Gamer remains disappointingly underwhelming.
Capitalizing on the allure of immersive interactive environments, Gamer depicts a not-so-distant future where simulation gaming has been taken to the extreme. Thanks to eccentric genius Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), gamers can actually play real people. In his first game, called “Society”, players control down-and-out volunteers in a sort of real-life version of The Sims or Second Life. A predominantly negative reflection of the ability to explore alternate identities and behaviors that video games provide, “Society” is basically a forum for acting out (mostly sexual) impulses considered unacceptable in the real world.
Castle’s gaming empire is rife with both sex and violence. His second game is the international sensation known as “Slayers”, a televised first-person-shooter battle game that has become the world’s new gladiator arena. The “slayers” themselves are death-row convicts given the (very slim) chance to win their freedom if they survive — or rather, if their player survives — 30 battles. The most infamous slayer is John “Kable” Tillman (Gerard Butler) who, at an unprecedented 27 wins, is closer to earning his freedom than anyone ever before.
But Tillman won’t survive those last few battles if Castle has anything to say about it. With a seemingly unwarranted vendetta and an unadulterated thirst for power, his motivations lack depth or believability. Nevertheless, Hall gives a haunting performance, pushing beyond a purely archetypal god complex to a flippant kind of madness. In the end, however, the character’s lack of complexity makes this villain little more than a caricature.
Even Gamer’s protagonist is similarly one-dimensional. Tillman’s reticence is more alienating than demonstrative of silent strength, obscuring the character’s motivations and thereby impeding the audience’s ability to connect and sympathize with the film’s hero. What’s more, belying his versatility and skill as an actor, Butler’s performance is uncharacteristically restrained, no doubt at least partially due to the limitations of his character.
Gamer is superficial on a thematic level as well, which is surprising considering the premise’s great potential for critical depth. Touching on societal anxieties about technological advancement, especially in terms of of free will, isolationism, desensitization, and sensationalism, Gamer makes no attempt to interrogate the issues it raises. This failure to address its own questions makes the film seem unfocused and incomplete. On the one hand an apparent critique of sensationalism and the commercialization of sex and violence, on the other, Gamer is itself a sensationalist film that itself capitalizes on that commercial trend.
Issues of gamer identity are also dealt with in a confusingly reductive way. Although apparently constructed to appeal to video game enthusiasts, Gamer actually seems to deride its would-be audience. Depicting video games as an outlet for perverted and deviant desires, the people who play them are assumed to be degenerate bunch. But Neveldine and Taylor go beyond merely assuming and make the association explicit. Of the few gamers actually appearing in the film, the most prominent is Kable’s player Simon (Logan Lerman), a spoiled and desensitized teenage boy. But the most memorable image is that of a sweaty, obese, and sexually-frustrated recluse. Gamer therefore not only perpetuates but also exaggerates the negative stereotypes surrounding gamers.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the team responsible for Crank would neglect characterization and theme in favor of flashy action. Pioneers of guerilla filmmaking, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are known to accomplish a lot with relatively little, and Gamer is no exception on that front. The behind-the-scenes footage of their inventive, collaborative, and hands-on approach is certainly the most interesting part of the Blu-ray’s sole extra. Otherwise filled with customary congratulatory puffery and cast glorification, the lengthy featurette is a curious and inopportune consolidation of the initial DVD release’s three segments. Moreover, despite the significance of its new format, additional extras about the move to 3D are conspicuously absent.
Although the new 3D format underscores its impressive action sequences, emphasizing its inspiring example of what is possible in low-budget filmmaking, Gamer still doesn’t quite reach the kind of whimsically outlandish mayhem otherwise characteristic of Neveldine and Taylor’s work. By prioritizing admittedly innovative special effects, Gamer 3D neglects other components and only achieves depth on a visual level. So overall, despite stellar actors and a thematically rich concept, Gamer quite simply fails to live up to its potential.