The UnPopular Opinion: Gamer
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
GAMER really did not do well for itself upon release - with box office numbers that barely exceeded $40 million in total (international included) and an audience reception that barely outshone the critical reception, the third writing/directing collaboration of Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine was dropped from cinema marquees about as quickly as an anvil in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Which was something both interesting and sad for me to witness, as I believe GAMER to easily be one of the best and important action movies in recent history.
Not only can it boast being shot in a way that extends beyond merely "cool," great performances, and solid action sequences, but it can also lay a triumphant claim to the boast of being genuinly about something. Something more, something very important, very relevent, and very possible. In fact not only is it genuinly about something, but it manages to communicate that special something in ways both clear and inventive. And I honestly don't know many other action movies released in recent years that can claim that.
"Whatever they call it, when you're in the game, a slice of a second is the difference between living and dying. When that trigger pulls... it's just me."
The single most important thing that makes GAMER a success is the way in which it is shot. Not only does it have substance beneath the style, but that style in fact works to enhance that same substance. Now I'm not going to say that Nevaldine/Taylor are the next Spielberg or Cuaron, but I will say that they seem to understand the language of filmmaking and how to use a camera better than most of the filmmakers currently out there. Some directors simply have the camera sit there and record what the characters are saying, some directors use the camera to sell the action and show off how cool they can be, and some directors do a whole lot more. Which is the group Nevaldine/Taylor are a part of - they recognize how camera movement, framing, and editing can serve to enhance the story/text/characters and demonstrate this over and over throughout GAMER.
They also understand how camera work and editing can contribute to an organic kind of storytelling, which to me is the best kind - no narrator, no text floating across the screen telling me what something is or why something is happening. As an example: when we first meet Kable in the opening battle, the exaggerated shifts in movement speed and the fractured filmmaking are able to organically give us some semblance of a sense about what he's going through, what it feels like to be controlled by someone else and to put your life in their hands, and what it is to be surrounded by chaotic destruction and death. This information could have easily been unloaded by Kable to a fellow inmate in some dark locker room after the battle, but Nevaldine/Taylor choose instead to use their inventive filming and editing style to bring us in immediately so that we could experience Kable's world just as he experiences it. And yes, one could argue that a great deal of the very exposition dumping I'm saying isn't present in GAMER can be found in the interview Gina conducts with Ken Castle, but to that I in turn would argue that the information relayed there is both backed up by exciting action that supports the text and is actually communicated in a way that makes complete sense at that moment.
When GAMER begins everything in this brave new world is on the verge of change, what with the rise of the revolutionary group Humanz and Kable being only a few battles away from freedom and founding genius Ken Castle making what is only his second media appearence, and so it absolutely makes sense for Gina to sum up the state of things and how it all began. Again, this is the presence of organic storytelling. Note: I’m not saying that organic storytelling is in and of itself a revolutionary idea, but rather that its presence here elevates GAMER above most other contemporary action movies that don’t seem to care about how information is disseminated so long as it gets out eventually. The whole of GAMER's story, all of the motivations and obstacles and ways in which character's learn information and make decisions - it is all actually very meticulously calculated and structured so that each element extends from that which came before, just as any story should be.
"Look at it. The new face of Slayers. Pure, crystalized horror. Two stories high and bathed in bloody red. He is what they want."
As for my whole bit about GAMER being legitimately about something? The fact of the matter is that “Society” and everything that happens therein is 1) disturbing, 2) kind of gross, and 3) not all too far removed from what would most likely happen if such an opportunity existed. Ever since the development of the internet people have pretended to be other people and done or said terrible things due to the anonymity technology can provide. Those who control the members of “Society” misuse the people the are controlling, making them have sex and get drunk and generally wreck shit up. All you have to do is pop on a headset for a game of MODERN WARFARE or glance at some YouTube comments to hear/see how awful people can at times be, and I really don’t think it takes much of a stretch of the imagination to envision people abusing the power a program like “Society” would provide. The safety of anonymity combined with its perceived lack of moral responsibility and an ever-increasing power for wish fulfillment is pulling our own (real) society down a dangerous path, an issue which GAMER takes on full tilt and without restraint.
The whole “Slayers” program of course runs along the same lines, and is presented just as graphically as “Society” in order to bluntly illustrate the callousness and inhumanity of such a proposition. The gross, slobbery, slimy, sweaty, overdone nature of “Society” is equal to the violent, gory, chaotic, distressing nature of “Slayers,” all of which serves to plainly show the audience the terrible toll participation in these programs takes on everyone involved. Blunt and graphic storytelling, when tied to important themes such as these, is to my mind the single most effective way to communicate a point. You don’t dance around the bush, you just show “this is the way it is.” Hence why GAMER is also one of the more affective action movies I’ve seen in recent years. Not only is it willing to deal with issues larger than itself, but it also isn’t afraid to do exactly what it needs to do in order to be true to the awful future it portends.
"Is this bad? I'm really bad."
Now, this is by no means a perfect movie. The score/soundtrack, minus one of the more relevant uses of Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams” I’ve heard, isn’t at all memorable. The majority of the characters are thinly drawn, their arcs murky and their motivations unclear. That doesn’t mean that they’re un-effective (see below), it’s just indicative of one of the few ways in which GAMER succumbs to being exactly like its action movie competition. There isn't much to any of the characters outside of the main players.
Another complaint I must admit to is that the story does tie itself up rather neatly, allowing a sweet personal victory to overshadow any larger implications that the movie might have had. Perhaps a full-on revolution against Castle's empire would have been no less believable, and perhaps the ending as it is exists specifically to make a comment on the inevitability of the greater situation (and thereby finds the "larger implications" I just spoke of). But I'm not sure. Nor am I honestly sure of what to suggest instead, I just know that after Kable at last killed Castle I found myself underwhelmed by the way in which the story chose to close itself out.
"... when they watch their hero [Kable] die right in front of their eyeballs so sharp and vivid it feels like you could reach out and touch the wet flesh, they're going to change their point of view. They'll be seduced by the power of violence; the dominance. It's human nature."
But here's the thing about the characters of GAMER: in order for a high concept story like GAMER's to work, the characters have to be driven by motivations both very simply and very human. And while not every character has these things as clearly as the more main characters like Kable and Castle, it is the universally fantastic performances which provide the three dimensionality lacking both in the text and in many other action movies. Everyone here gives their best go, and succeeds admirably at bringing a large amount of life even to the most limited of characters.
A special shout out must, of course, go to Michael C. Hall for his turn as Ken Castle. Because holy shit is this man scary. His song and dance number, while seemingly out of left field, is actually a brilliant piece of storytelling – not only because Hall just knocks it out of the park, but because it clearly demonstrates the callousness and insanity of his character in a way that no amount of exposition ever could. Is it a weird choice? Yes. But to me its almost like Kastle’s version of The Joker’s “magic trick.” Maybe the latter is a bit more tied to the soul of the character, but they both had the same effect on me as an audience member. That effect being “holy f*** what the f*** that’s so cool but I’m also freaked the f*** out right now.”
To me GAMER was an insightful and exciting action movie that did something new with the genre, in the sense that it not only asked questions of the audience's morality and world outlook but it also asked fellow filmmakers questions about the way they go about making action movies – sure, you can coast along on “being cool” and do the minimum necessary to provide an entertaining experience. But why be merely serviceable when you can be so much more? And GAMER, with themes that legitimately matter and a filmmaking style which fully supports and enhances the story attempting to be told, is ever so much more. It's cool, it's relevant, it's touching, it's exciting, it's frightening, it's affective, and above all it does exactly what cinematic storytelling has always been meant to do: tries its very hardest to wake the audience up, casual filmgoer and filmmaker alike.
"Look at this knife... imagine me sticking it into your gut. Think about it. Make it real!"