Gerard Butler, star of just about every other movie this summer, here does his best Jason Statham as Kable, a poor sap that is trapped in a dystopian future where rich kids control real people in ultra violent video games and everybody else watches on TV. The timing of the release is interesting. Gamer arrives one year after Paul W. S. “everything I touch turns to ash” Anderson successfully (if redundantly) re-tooled Paul Barlet’s cult nihilistic satire, Death Race 2000. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (or "Neveldine/Taylor" as they prefer because they are cooler than the rest of us), the guys behind the guilty pleasure that is the Crank franchise, Gamer takes a similar approach to The Running Man, essentially abandoning the wry commentary and turning up the volume.
In fact, just remove the game show element and replace it with hyperactive video game imagery and you have a pretty good idea what to expect. The story involves a futuristic pay-per-view extravaganza featuring death row inmates fighting for their freedom in games rigged so that they can't possibly win. As the film opens Kable is three battles away from victory and a pardon. Not that he has any control over that because his lord and master is a kid named Simon (Logan Lerman), a self-absorbed bore who knows how to handle a video game controller. Oh, and by the way, Kable also has to win redemption by rescuing his beautiful wife and daughter who he lost when he was tossed in the can.
Now if you have ever seen one of these movies, then you know this whole operation is run by a sadistic madman who will serve as the villain. In this case the task falls to Ken Castle (played by the brilliant Michael C. Hall), a power obsessed CEO hellbent on world domination via mind control. He has hidden the technology inside his two world famous games; a knockoff of The Sims and "Slayer" (the one in which Kable is competing). In this case fascism is created by a devious corporation but is only made possible because the people, hungry for the next step in their entertainment, gobble it up and let it sneak in.
Fighting against Castle and his media empire is a band of revolutionaries led by Ludacris (not playing himself but his character doesn't really have a name) who rap about the need for freedom of expression. They allow Simon to communicate with Kable and then set him free just in time for his final battle against Hackman (Terry Crews). Castle has chosen Hackman because he is a buff, cut killing machine who also, oh yeah, does not have a human controller and thus has an unfair advantage over Kable (something about response time). But Kable has bigger plans and uses the battle to escape and begin his quest to rescue his family.
The third act is such spazzed out fun that it justifies sitting through the first two thirds of the movie. It is giving away nothing to mention that Kable is actually an innocent man who has fallen prey to Castle's Jedi mind tricks. Try and imagine the conservative movie studios trying to convince us to root for a cold-blooded murderer. Kable spends the end of the movie bouncing between the three worlds that have been established (the real one, "Slayer", and The Sims knockoff) in beautifully imagined set pieces. Neveldine/Taylor even let former Broadway star Hall do a musical number in the lead up to the climax.
Often times it feels like the ideas were too big for this movie, but you have to give them credit for trying. They strive to remind us that the hot blonde hitting on you on Facebook may really be a morbidly obese, syrup-slurping loser living in a basement somewhere. But since we all pretty much got that lesson a decade ago, there is nothing noteworthy about saying it again. More relevant is the reminder that he who controls the information has the power to control the minds, especially in this era of wireless addiction. The movie is worth a look but not worth a mad dash to the theatre. In fact you could probably just wait until Surrogates comes out – it appears to be much the same movie.
Starring: Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall, Ludacris, Kyra Sedgwick
Runtime; 95 minutes
Danielle Panabaker's Top Pop Picks
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