GAMER, released without the benefit of a press screening, is a big, loud mess that loses its few good ideas in a morass of convoluted storytelling that it has, sadly, confused with stylish innovation.
It posits a world in the near future where gaming has lost its virtual quality. Sim-worlds are inhabited by real people controlled by other real people who pay for the privilege of living their lives vicariously through others. The controlees are paid for their trouble. Those in the game called Society, a benign world of sex and drugs and very short skirts, are regular, if cash-strapped folks, paid in conventional money, those in the game called Slayer, an endless battlefield, are regular death-row convicts, who are paid with a full pardon if they survive 30 battles. Naturally, its a media phenomenon. Naturally it has generated a superstar in Kable (Gerard Butler), who has survived 27 battles and is about to be the first slayer to get his pardon. Naturally, hes an innocent family man who wants nothing more than to get back to his dishy wife and doughty daughter.
The necessary exposition is covered with the creator of these games, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) doing his first interview in a decade, and a chat show owned by him. That doesnt stop the barracuda host (Kyra Sedgwick) from asking uncomfortable questions such as why Slayer isnt murder when the kills in the game are for real. Why she doesnt ask why the real sex is prostitution in Society would only slow things down, so it goes unchallenged. Also going unchallenged is why John Leguizamo is relegated to so few minutes of screen time that his character, a rapping co-Slayer player of Kables, is reduced to only providing Kable another anguished interlude. The insertion of a rebel band called the Humanz, led by Ludacris, introduces as much confusion as it does sub-plot, with super agents who are capable of everything except taking the most direct and effective steps to stop the nefarious scheme that Castle, of course, has hatched for world domination. Sigh.
Screenwriters/co-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor play into every cliché available to the gaming and geek worlds. Those controlling the Society Sims are societys rejects, shut off from the world, but not from an endless array of snack foods to fuel their whale-sized proportions. The master gamer of Slayer, Simon (Logan Lerman), is, of course, a spoiled, rich kid with no empathy and less than 18 years. Sedgewick, as our barracuda, is exactly what one should be, tough-talking, ratings-grubbing, and fawning painfully when appropriate. Butler, although playing a part that is as hackneyed as it is underwritten, brings a welcome and vivid gravitas to the table. Hall, on the other hand, feigns a peculiar southern accent, killer abs, and an Elvis-like sneer that is neither camp nor ironic, merely sad.
The action is plentiful, consisting of overexposed lighting, human torches, splattered brains and big mechanical things that go crunch when they are not going boom. The profligate violence is done without any sense of choreography nor of originality, making the wanton exercise in mayhem as tedious as the wanton exercises in sensuality to be found in Society, the other game that has, of course, a more than tenuous connection to Kables backstory.
GAMER could have been a dynamic and troubling examination of society’s penchant for violence as a diversion, starting with the gladiators and working its way to a logical extrapolation of not-so-virtual reality. Instead it is a conventional action flick with no spark of ingenuity beyond two things: the idea of pistachio butter as a sandwich fixing, and a novel way of creating ethanol fuel using bodily fluids and a fifth of vodka. Yet, in a flick that confuses jump-cuts with pacing, and stereotypes with archetypes, even they lose whatever fun they might have otherwise brought.