Chaos, punctuated by familiar figures in combat gear. They move with practiced ease and kill with absolute efficiency as they wage war across a warehouse in a derelict town. It could be any war in the last thirty years and, crucially, it could be any game in the last twenty. We follow one character as he moves through and up the warehouse, coming under heavy fire but destroying everyone in his path until, at the last moment, a grenade drops at his feet.
Suddenly we’re outside, and the figure we’ve been following bounces off the roof of a car as the grenade detonates above him. He falls to the ground, drags himself up and stumbles forwards. He’s surrounded by other figures, all wounded, all stumbling, all desperate and as we see them it becomes clear that these are people, not computer characters. Hurt, exhausted, frightened people whose lives depend on reaching a ridiculous piece of science fiction architecture before they’re killed. This is a game and it’s a matter of life and death.
By any stretch of the imagination, this has been a banner year for mid-level science fiction, the sort of film which balances budget and invention to create something genuinely new. Moon and District 9 were both legitimate and deserved successes and have been followed by the likes of Cold Souls, Pandorum and Gamer. Of all of them, Gamer is the most populist, produced by Neveldine/Taylor, the writers and directors of the Crank movies and superficially has the same level of demented pulp as its predecessors. Gamer follows Kable, a death row inmate whose brain has been replaced with nanex, a nanotechnological substance that gives his brain its own unique IP address. Kable is part of Slayers, a real world death match that pits teams of Slayers against one another, controlled by players. If you survive thirty battles, you go free. Kable, continually claiming his innocence, is on twenty seven and the vultures are starting to circle…
Where the Crank movies have achieved cult status, Gamer has been widely decried as the sort of violent, ghastly pantomime that isn’t deserving of any critical attention. It’s unfortunate too as Gamer shares a lot of DNA, or in this case source code, with something uniquely English; 2000AD.
Launched in 1977 by IPC, 2000AD is arguably responsible for almost all the English comics scene. Writers like Alan Moore, Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison all cut their teeth in its page as did countless artists and the comic’s unique weekly release schedule and anthology format meant that a steady flow of ideas and characters have emerged from it throughout its life. Judge Dredd, Judge Anderson, Strontium Dog, Slaine, the ABC Warriors, Nikolai Dante, Caballistics Incorporated and dozens more have all been unleashed onto the world, a baying pack of ideas with a horde of talented creators behind them. It was also, and remains, a cheerfully satirical and frequently very violent comic. After all its flagship character, Judge Dredd, polices Mega City 1, one of the last cities left on Earth with a combination of relentless tenacity and utter brutality. Dredd is a mass murderer himself, a character who once voluntarily launched a nuclear strike against another city to save his own and yet is the closest thing Mega City 1 has to a hero. He’s a deeply troubled, nuanced figure as only characters with such an extensive career can be but the fact remains that Dredd is the best cog of a broken machine, not so much a good man in hell as a man striving to be good enough and continually disappointing himself.
This is the first bridge between 2000AD and Gamer, the willingness not only to resort to violence but to use that violence as a carrier for comedy and social commentary. Much of 2000AD’s output is very funny, a pantomime covered in blood and stinking of cordite that, over the years, has produced highlights ranging from a charming teenage sociopath being elected mayor of Mega City 1 to a pair of alien layabouts accidentally making an award winning film starring the alien equivalent of Marlon Brando. Nothing is sacred, everything is fair game and the end result, when it’s at it’s best, is a title whose irreverence is matched only by its intelligence.
Gamer finds its comedy and its horror in the same place, in the hideously violent games that its hero is forced to play. Kable, played by Gerard Butler, looks like a computer graphic brought to life, a pile of muscles, stubble and brutally efficient violence. Butler is rapidly carving a niche for himself as one of the most interesting leading men of his age group and his willingness to subvert the expectations of his audience fits in perfectly with Gamer. He’s physically completely credible, moving with the combination of speed and force that every first person shooter character since Doom’s nameless marine has used but that’s not the character, that’s the role he’s forced to play. Butler’s character emerges in his quiet moments, moments where it becomes clear Kable’s real weapon is his mind. The film’s best, and funniest, moments almost all revolve around Kable subverting expectations, whether it’s finding a queasily effective way to smuggle ethanol into a gas tank or using the Nanex that has replaced his brain against its designer. Each incident is laced with the same blood and grime as the rest of the film but there are flashes of frantic, jet black humour that lift it far above the normal action fare.
This close, violent dance between comedy and horror lies at the heart of 2000AD’s best work and all of Gamer’s best moments. The prisoners who play the game are referred to as I-Cons for example whilst the hapless, low risk prisoners who are used as local colour are Gener-I-Cons, doomed to repeat the same basic motions over and over until they either survive or are caught in a crossfire they can’t avoid. Murder is dressed up as a play on words just as legalised, localised population control is dressed up as a computer game. Mega City 1, and Mayor Proby in particular, would be very proud.
The dance gets even closer, even more brutal as the film progresses and we see the world outside the prison and the game zones. Kable’s player, Simon, who is in turn played by Logan Lerman is a bored rich kid who has made a name for himself, literally, off Kable’s back. He’s a youtube celebrity drenched in blood, a boy with no ethical core who the film is brave enough to never fully redeem. Simon helps Kable, but it’s more out of a sense of propriety than anything else. Kable is Simon’s I-Con, and no one beats Simon. In fact, one of the film’s best scenes focuses on this as an FBI Agent, played by and apparently named after genre stalwart Keith David, shows Simon pictures of the men Kable killed at his control in an attempt to shock the boy into revealing where Kable is. It’s only when Simon’s father’s assets, the things he will inherit and exploit, are threatened that he relents and even then only does so on his terms.
Out in the real world, the sense of unreality is, if anything, heightened. Butler’s colossal frame looks ungainly and out of place surrounded by normal people and the film sensibly plays this up as Kable, a puppet without strings, must once again rely on others to help him. In this instance, it’s the Humanz, a group of resistance fighters led by Brother, played by Ludacris. The Humanz are a group of freedom fighters straight out of central casting, comprised of Brother, Dude and Trace, a punk nurse played with wonderful venom by Alison Lohman. Whilst Ludcaris and Lohman do excellent work, their characters are completely stereotypical, completely off the shelf and that’s the point. They’re Cyberpunk caricatures writ large, two plot mechanics with vocal chords whose sole job it is to move Kable further to his meeting with his final game, the boss fight in every sense of the word.
This is the second bridge between 2000AD and Gamer, this cheerful willingness to embrace not only the stereotypes of modern storytelling but the tropes as well. 2000AD has frequently excelled at riding the pop culture wave and even when it’s failed, the magazine has know exactly what to lampoon. Pop culture parody and the subversion of pop culture iconography has been at the core of its structure for decades to varying levels of success and this magpie instinct, this willingness to use whatever toys have been left lying around and to do something new and interesting and, frequently, trend-setting with them is clearly also present in Gamer. Superficially the film as a whole, and the Humanz scenes in particular, play a lot like the cut scenes that explain the plot in between action sequences on a video game. There are clear, overt references to films like The Running Man and Blade Runner, a flashback sequence which helps justify the hero’s terrible actions and even the grand entrance of a mysterious benefactor. This isn’t just a film about game culture, this is a film that adapts and adopts game culture and game narrative in a far more successful manner than any of it’s predecessors.
This in turn leads to the third bridge between 2000AD and Gamer, the pathological need to poke fun at modern trends. In the past this has been where 2000AD has been at its weakest but here Gamer manages to not only absorb and comment on first person shooter culture but also games like Second Life. Society, the film’s equivalent of Second Life, is home to its most disturbing scenes as normal people are controlled by Society gamers as a day job and forced to do horrific, degrading things to themselves and each other. Kable’s wife, Angie, played by Amber Valletta is forced to take a role in the game and much of the film’s middle half hour revolves around Kable’s spectacularly violent attempt to rescue her, pursued by some of the very Slayers he played against and with prior to his escape. Whilst Second Life has done, and continues to do, some fascinating things here it’s nothing but another target, decried as home to overgrown children at best and sociopaths at worst. It’s not remotely fair, but then again, satire never is.
This simultaneous love of and need to attack game structure is reflected in the film’s closing scene which, in turn, harks back to the maniacal pulp invention of 2000AD. The inevitable and vital link between Kable and Castle, the creator of Slayers and Society is established and Kable goes off to rescue his daughter from Castle and in doing so, go through the boss fight. This is the final level of countless arcade games or sections of arcade games, as the player, powered up by the knowledge and equipment he’s received along the way, must face the big boss.
Who, in this case, is essentially Steve Jobs, the Apple CEO. Michael C. Hall has come in for a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Castle and it’s a real shame as he’s one of the film’s best features. Fiercely intelligent and clearly deranged, Castle has the movie’s best moment all to himself. Kable finds himself face to face with a silhouetted Castle who drops, Bob Fosse style, into a stringless puppet pose before stepping out into the light and launching into a spirited rendition of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. He’s surrounded by Slayers I-Cons who, under his control, launch into an elaborate dance number in support of him which segues effortlessly into a fight with Kable. Jazz and blood, comedy and horror, songs and violence. It’s a glorious scene and it’s made by the glee with which Hall attacks every line and, later, Kable himself.
But for all the fun Castle has, he can never win. Kable, watched and helped by Simon and Kyra Sedgwick as Gina Parker Smith, a cheerfully ruthless journalist gets a confession from Castle live on every TV on Earth. His name is cleared, he’s an innocent man, the first victim of a new type of crime.
Then he stabs Castle in the chest. Because no hero is perfect and deep down, no hero wants to be. This is the big finish, the big moment and like a lot of game endings, it’s a little too perfect. Kable is reunited with his wife and child, Castle’s control of anyone with Nanex is brought to an end and Kable, a mass murderer is allowed to go free. This is the film’s final bridge to 2000AD, its willingness to embrace the dark and the unexpected and to find something oddly hopeful within it. The Nanex technology still exists, is clearly too valuable to leave alone and Kable remains an asset to some and a threat to others. None of which matters, the film instead closing on Kable and his family driving through the mountains to freedom. The shot is the film’s final subversion, it’s final nod, mirroring the final scene of the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. It’s a happy ending stuck on a gore drenched opera, a moment of peace at the end of a chorus of explosions and death. It feels both unreal and too real, the perfect computer game ending to the first film to absorb the narrative techniques of the first person shooter. Gamer may be over, but the game, complete with its brutality, its stereotypes and its feverish humour, will never end.