Ninety per cent of New Media makes me feel like Buck Rogers. I look at something like the Second Life phenomenon as proof I’ve fallen through a hole in time. The idea of living vicariously through a computer-generated alter-ego just seems bat-shit insane to me. Call it my Gil Gerard-reflex, but when I read about a real-life couple who met through a computer game and divorced when the husband had a virtual affair, my sense of what’s real goes a bit 25th century. Admittedly, the new action movie, Gamer, is not the ideal platform for questioning the direction of early 21st century social-norms, but the story is (at heart) a Second Life parody.
In the not-too-distant future, as folks tire of controlling virtual people on-line, a new technology is born that allows jaded gamers to remote-control real people. There are two main games to choose from: in one, much like The Sims, you can take possession of an avatar that will wear funny clothes and have sex with pseudonym-ed strangers; in the other, much like a lot of computer games, you run around trying to kill everything. The latter game is called Slayers, and its remote-controlled people are all convicts. If an i-con (as they’re called) survives 30 battles, he’s granted his freedom. As our story begins, one i-con has just survived battle number 27.
Gerard Butler’s appeal for women still mystifies me, but for men, it’s obvious: he looks like he could beat you up. Butler looks like Russell Crowe did before Crowe discovered Pick ’n Mix. He looks like a man carved out of beef, like someone who could build you a house single-handed, or someone who doesn’t feel the need to use a comb. His unvarnished, Scottish Highlands, flashback-scenes-in-Highlander look makes him a naturally fit for playing a soldier. In Gamer, the only back-story Butler’s character requires is one that explains the non-soldier aspects of his life. He’d convince you as a man with military training if you saw him eating hummus. In this movie, his job is to provide what Arnold Schwarzenegger provided in The Running Man: a) the muscle, b) the moral compass. As everyone around him waives their humanity for a Pac-Man fetish, Butler’s innate, Cro-Magnon gravitas shames hairy-palmed gamers even as they remote-control him.
Since Gamer is directed by the directors of Crank, roles for women aren’t quite as authoritative, but Kyra Sedgewick has fun as a Barbara Walters-style TV journalist. Alison Lohman crops up as a cyber-punk. And Amber Valletta plays Gerard Butler’s wife with the appropriate doe-eyed adoration and gym-toned physique. Valletta’s role, and the Sims-like game she’s a part of, could have been explored further, but Gamer never spends too long away from the boys.
Michael C. Hall gets the best scene in the movie, when, at the climax, his arch-villain character confronts Gerard Butler with a big song and dance number choreographed to Cole Porter’s very apropos I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Hall, who was always great in Six Feet Under, seems to have at last got some clout via his role in Dexter, and seizes on the chance to play the Ernst Blofeld of on-line gaming with noticeable delight. His health-food-psycho look (i.e. the sort of guy who’d recommend lentils to you as he wiped blood off his hands) is perfect for the morally-punctured lunatic he’s asked to play. When Hall smiles I hear body bags zipping-up.
Gamer might approach the Second Life craze from a who-should-we-kill standpoint, but it does feel horribly prescient at times. I say this as Buck Rogers – as a dinosaur – a guy who’s still amazed by the i-phone. But the idea of having sex when neither party is present, or of getting a divorce because your husband had a mouse-based affair, is pretty far from sanity. And those things have already happened. People, as a whole, don’t seem to be giving succour to their better selves in Second Life; they mostly dress-up in weird costumes and screw each other. Virtual morality is just that. It’s like asking Buck Rogers to observe the niceties of a new century.