The “really real” World of Gamer
Updated: Aug 11, 2022
In light of our screening of Gamer on August 2nd, we look back at Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's visionary cyberpunk masterpiece.
Author's note: I want to preface this review by noting that anything I write here is fundamentally in the shadow of Steven Shaviro. His essay on Gamer from his blog, and the subsequent chapter in Post-Cinematic Affect it became are incredible works of criticism that I would urge anyone to read. I am deeply honoured that he agreed to introduce our screening of Gamer.
The first of many “am I dreaming?” moments in Gamer occurs approximately six minutes in. During a television interview, the film’s primary antagonist, tech-overlord Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) shares the following observation:
“We live in society. We visit Society. I mean, which one’s more real, really? I mean which one’s really real?”
For those unfamiliar with the cyberpunk mythology of Gamer, “Society” refers to a popular online video game where real people’s bodies are controlled by “players”, primarily with the intent of directing them into degrading sexual encounters. Castle has achieved his god-king status by inventing the system that serves as the basis for Society, a cybernetic link that allows one person to control another’s actions. In Gamer’s satirical vision of the near future, technological developments such as these have exacerbated widening inequality, corruption, and the oppression of the have-nots. The frisson generated by a film from 2009 prefiguring a meme that rose to prominence ten years after its release is the first clue that filmmaking duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor might have been onto something. A decade before Joker shitposting was used to process the general malaise of our present moment, Gamer articulated these anxieties in ways that are simultaneously wildly ahead of its time and inextricable from the milieu that birthed it.
In the late 2000s, Neveldine and Taylor were riding high off the success of the Crank films: anarchic action-comedies which featured legitimately avant-garde experiments with colour-grading and digital cinematography. More pertinent for this review, they pointed towards an interest in the language of video games. As gaming looked set to supersede cinema as the dominant mode of mass entertainment, Neveldine and Taylor understood the appeal that games hold over films (particularly for young male audiences) and took steps to incorporate aspects of game logic and aesthetics into their work. The premise of Crank, that Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) must keep his heart rate above a certain level, or he’ll die, is pure Rockstar Games (the developers behind the GTA and Max Payne series). Additionally, the misanthropic outlook, politically incorrect comedic tenor, and general apathy towards human life all mirror the vibe of games from this era. The plot is paper thin to the point of abstraction, a thread on which to hang the film’s frenetic setpieces.
While this could be said of many action movies, Crank’s disregard for cinematic conventions, embracing of handheld digital cameras, and prominent inclusion of characters playing portable consoles speak more to a dialogue with new media than a parody of classical genre tropes. Either way, videogames have always liberally borrowed from the movies (case in point: the aforementioned Max Payne combines John Woo-style gunplay with elements of film-noir), so Neveldine and Taylor’s oeuvre is perhaps best understood as a case of the snake eating its own tail.
Gamer sees the pair’s interest in interactive media taken to a new level. As well as Society, the other major game in this near future is Slayers, in which the bodies of death row inmates are piloted by players in battle royale death matches through empty warehouses and bombed-out city blocks reminiscent of the generic warzones of first-person shooter maps. In addition to playable inmates, these zones are populated with other prisoners, with no one steering them, resigned to moving in pre-determined patterns. They are, essentially, “NPCs”, and they don’t last long in the maelstrom of Slayers, where real bodies get splattered and teabagged via puppetmasters in the outside world. Through shots of cheering crowds in various locales, Neveldine and Taylor establish that this live-streamed bloodsport is a widely popular global phenomenon on par with The World Cup.
At the center of Slayers is Kable, a “perfect soldier” played by the inimitable Gerard Butler. He has somehow survived twenty-seven games, making him the most successful participant of all time. In the “real world”, he is controlled by Simon, a seventeen-year-old rich kid played with a sneering rude ‘tude by Logan Lerman. Simon’s success at puppeteering Kable has earned him a degree of celebrity (he is, in essence, a proto-Twitch streamer), although Kable is the real star. Kable’s goal is to survive thirty games, which according to the rules of Slayers, will earn him his freedom. What keeps him persevering through the grey-scaled viscera of Slayers is the hope he will reunite with his wife Angie (model turned actress Amber Valletta) and their young daughter. Naturally, the powers that be have a plan to prevent Kable from getting out alive. In Gamer, as in real life, the rich and powerful can move the goal posts as they see fit.
Elsewhere, Angie has been working in Society, spending her days in and out of ludicrous blue hot pants, delivering stilted, porn-tier dialogue and submitting to the whims of her “player”, a morbidly obese social pariah named Gorge (played by the sadly departed Ramsey Moore), an embodiment of every gamer stereotype not already assigned to Simon. Angie’s inability to attain custody of their daughter due to her employment status reflects a puritanical outlook that persists outside of Gamer - that sex work is fundamentally immoral, and an unsuitable job for someone with a duty of care to a child. The scene in which Angie pleads her case with a smug case worker (Sam Wittwer, aka Starkiller from The Force Unleashed for any gamers out there) is handled with a surprising sensitivity (by the standards of Gamer which, I concede, are fairly warped). Despite Neveldine and Taylor’s puerile inclinations, Gamer is, at its heart, a sci-fi film about a convict and a sex worker, one that actively considers the role that the working class will play in a future where technology and culture continue on their current path.
Ken Castle, the mind behind Society and Slayers, played with giddy relish by Hall, is an intriguing creation. There is no single real-world analogue for his character, a billionaire tech entrepreneur who has adopted a folksy Deep-South affect and “yes ma’am” swagger. Yet, he embodies a variety of trends that have accelerated in recent years: the absurd delusions of big-tech “visionaries” like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, coupled with the cultivated machismo of Joe Rogan and the litany of self-styled free-thinkers who have graced his studio. The technology that forms the basis of his media empire (not dissimilar to Musk’s most sinister scheme to date: “the neuralink”) has paved the way for his end goal: mass-scale mind control of the entire US population. The implication that his advanced tech has allowed him to hack elections to his own nefarious ends is simply another moment where Neveldine and Taylor take you well and truly through the looking glass. As our very own Felix Dembinski remarked during a recent podcast episode on Gamer “it's like someone interpreted the world of 2022 through the lens of 2009 meme culture.”
If Gamer were just a film that correctly predicted a load of real-life events and trends in our world, that wouldn’t necessarily make it an enjoyable viewing experience (quite the opposite). But Gamer is exhilarating - a blockbuster that creates jaw-dropping collages combining 35mm photography with layers of digital textures. The music, which includes Marilyn Manson’s cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Bad Touch” by Bloodhound Gang, contributes to an assaultive viewing experience that overwhelms you with a constant stream of new images accompanied by a dizzying soundscape. Neveldine and Taylor, who have described themselves as “pretty ADD”, nevertheless direct the film with the formal precision of Alain Resnais. There are plenty of conventionally beautiful images in Gamer, such as the whitewashed desert of Kable’s prison rec-yard, or the neon-soaked nightclub of Society. But the ugliness of so many compositions is crucial to Gamer’s effect. The blood-splattered industrial wastelands of Slayers, or the glimpses of the claustrophobic, atomised lives of the otaku Society players create a feeling of truly apocalyptic wretchedness.
The fact that Gamer unabashedly revels in what it purports to critique was flagged by many critics in 2009 as a glaring flaw. One reviewer opined, “It is a film that tries to criticize the commercialization of violence, even though it itself is commercialized violence”. But this is one of Gamer’s biggest strengths. Neveldine and Taylor don’t let the viewer off the hook by creating a clear distinction between critique and glorification. In the world of Gamer, the brutality shown on screen is widely celebrated, which reflects the cynical notion that the public would happily accept the rise of televised kill zones, and goes some way to explaining why the pair believed a film as amoral as Gamer would succeed as a piece of popular entertainment. Neveldine and Taylor are constantly having it both ways: exemplified by Gamer’s evident commercial aspiration of getting video game enthusiasts out to the movies, only to see themselves depicted on screen as repulsive, cruel, and socially maladjusted. What you are left with is a film that features both a thought-provoking exchange about the rights of sex workers in the digital age and an aggressively leering camera that objectifies Amber Valletta as much as we are invited to sympathise with her character.
Similarly, Gamer is undoubtedly critical of the prison industry’s exploitation of America’s incarcerated, yet the film hinges on creating dynamic setpieces out of the death matches that elucidate this perspective. In Gamer, the critique of power structures is unapologetically mixed in with material designed to excite the kind of teenage boys who have experienced their sexual awakening glued to a laptop screen. While this could generously be described as morally dubious, the feeling it evokes is uniquely provocative. The immorality, the exploitation, and the brutality are all transparently on screen, and the viewer is constantly reminded of their own complicity in how they engage with it. The nauseating moralising of awards-bait films which gesture towards substance through the aesthetics of prestige is refreshingly absent in Gamer.
Although Neveldine and Taylor may have struck on profundity purely by accident (I would love to know what they think of Shaviro’s analysis), this by no means undermines the impact of Gamer. The duo’s madcap sensibility is the perfect match for the “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” absurdity of our reality. No film made in good taste could hope to capture the true nature of forces like the internet, big-tech, and the prison industrial complex.
Gamer’s ending, which I won’t spoil, is happy only on a surface level; there is no real sense that the wider world around the main characters is redeemable. I don’t want to close on a dour note, but the feeling that everything is rapidly hurtling towards a final act far beyond what has been dreamt up in science-fiction and satire feels more relatable now than it did in 2009. But what do I know? I was too young to see Gamer in cinemas.