"Why did you watch another video game movie, Brian?" Well, voice in my head, it could be because hope springs eternal. True, movies based on video games are, as a rule, pretty terrible. Not that that stops people from making them, but even the more recent releases that should know better are still awful; Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark...you get the picture. Basing a movie's plot on a video game isn't such a great idea, either. Aside from the occasional gem like Scott Pilgrim, you get utter crap like The Wizard and Brainscan. But Scott Pilgrim (and, hopefully, Tron: Legacy) proves that you can make a video game-based movie and make it as fun as the games that it is based on. But the thing that convinced me to watch this via my Netflix Instant Queue was this fantastic plot summary they provided:
Whoa! The bad guy is Ken? That sounds pretty awesome! I always knew that Barbie-loving man-slut had more backbone than pundits gave him credit for. And 2034? That's only two years after Demolition Man takes place! I didn't know this was a sequel!It's 2034, and humans can control and kill each other in a large-scale online gaming world. But Kable (Gerard Butler), a wrongfully convicted soldier forced to join the violent competition, tries to free himself by taking out its evil architect, Ken
Actually, that plot description isn't too accurate. The year is, and I quote, "Some years from this exact moment," which is an annoying cop-out for any sci-fi movie. Take a stand, people; even if your claim of gang wars ripping Los Angeles apart by 1997 is wrong, Predator 2, at least you had the balls to make an idiotically bold prediction.
In the future, there is a wildly popular game, called Society. Basically, it's like The Sims, but you pay to control real people; at home, you play on your high-tech computer, and your words and desires are carried out by people who have had nanites implanted in their brain, which assigns control of their bodies to a designated user. The people being controlled in the game get paid, but nowhere near as well as the game's creator, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall). After a few years of being the world's richest man, based solely on this game, Castle introduces a new game, called Slayers. In this game, players pay to control death row inmates in a massively multiplayer online (MMO) third-person shooter game. So, if you controlled me, my life would depend on how well you can aim my guns and how quickly you react to the hectic warzone surrounding me. Lucky me. The game's biggest star is John Tillman (Gerard Butler), AKA Kable in the game, because he has outperformed every other player by a country mile; if Kable survives thirty games, he is a free man. So far, he has completed twenty-seven, which is about twenty more than the next best player. If he makes it out of the game, Tillman will find his wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), and child. But he's not going to make it out of the game. According to Humanz Brother (Ludacris), leader of the anti-Slayers/Society group, Humanz, Tillman knows an important secret about Ken Castle that Ken will stop at nothing to keep secret. But what can Tillman do, when he's stuck being controlled by a whiny seventeen year-old (Logan Lerman)? He's doomed! Or is he? No, he's probably not.
First off, I would like to congratulate this movie on its cast. Not only was it able to snag one of today's more distinguished dumb action movie heroes, with Gerard Butler (what, was Jason Statham busy?), but the supporting cast is full of noteworthy actors. Aaron Yoo, Alison Lohman, Zoe Bell, James Roday, Maggie Lawson, Milo Ventimiglia, and Keith David all have teeny tiny bit parts. The parts were too small to be good or bad, but they all made an appearance. Kyra Sedgwick underperformed in her role as a TV "journalist," but she was able to convey some of the duplicitous nature that profession requires. John Leguizamo apparently needed some quick cash; he shows up for maybe three minutes of screen time, acts awkward (and a little funny) and is gone again. None of these characters is important in any way to the larger story, but I was definitely impressed with how many actors I recognized in this.
I also like some of the lighter touches in the film. I thought the occasional pixelation of the screen was a nice touch for a video game movie. I liked that the villain was truly a monstrous bad guy, bent on world domination --- you don't see that too much any more, and it is also appropriate for a video game movie. I was astonished that Disney let the filmmakers take a song from Pinocchio, although I'm sure it didn't come cheap. Actually, I liked many bits that stayed true to playing video games. Of course an obese man plays Society as a slutty woman. Of course the Society characters wear clothes that no normal person wears, like rap video-style hot pants and latex suits. And of course, in a shooter game played by teenagers, the dead characters get "teabagged" by those that have shot them. Those little details did a good job of emphasizing that there is a game being played in this movie.
Of course, the plot is pretty terrible. I don't care how much this movie wants to convince me that Slayers is a worldwide gaming/pay-per-view phenomenon, the amount of advertising shown in the "real world" for the show is just plain silly; every advertisement you see is for the game, be it dozens of full-building painted ads, or even one of the great pyramids in Egypt sporting a promo. I don't care how popular something is, even in the undetermined future, over-saturation of a product leads to an inevitable public backlash. The story is overly melodramatic and stupid, particularly in the moments after the climax. SPOILER: After killing Ken Castle, Tillman politely asks Castle's cronies to deactivate the nanites in all the brains of Society and Slayer players. They say, okay, it's done. End of film, roll the damn credits. Wha-?!? The acting is about what you would expect in a Gerard Butler movie, with lots of grunting and facial stubble. Amber Valletta, Ludacris and Logan Lerman would seem like important characters in this movie, but they ultimately serve as plot devices to get Tillman from point A to point B. I enjoyed Terry Crews' appearance, even if it was absolutely over-the-top. And I liked Michael C. Hall in the villain role, even though his southern accent drove me nuts; he played a despicable, unrealistic character and obviously had fun doing it. I take that back...I liked Michael C. Hall toward the end of the movie when he was having fun overacting, but he seriously irritated me for the first half of the movie. Characters like this are par for the course from writer/directors Neveldine/Taylor (that is their chosen professional name, so I will choose not to mock it just because it's as stupid as FaceSlashOff), who made the Crank movies before this. They make ridiculously stupid action movies and went for more of the same here. They weren't trying to do anything more or less than that, so I can't criticize them for succeeding in their goal.
Should this film even be judged by regular movie standards? I think the filmmakers were intending to make a movie that mirrors the in-game experience of many of today's top video games. The answer to my question is yes (if you don't want it judged like a movie, choose a different genre), but even if I looked at this film as an homage to violent shoot-em-up games like Call of Duty, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, and sims like, uh, The Sims, this movie is still lacking.
I don't care that the movie is dumb. So are video games. I care that it's often boring and pretentious. Social commentary in films doesn't carry much weight when the films are idiotic, but that doesn't stop this movie from preaching that you shouldn't control the actions of others through video games. Wow. Way to take a bold stance on an important issue, guys. I wonder if they are for or against turning babies into an affordable meat paste for poor people to eat? I expected this movie to have more and better action. Yes, there's plenty of action in the Slayer sequences, but it's just a few minutes of blurred images and bodies exploding; I wanted more action in the parts of the movie that advanced the plot. And the plot...well, it could have been less complicated. This could have been a story about how the user and the usee worked together to overcome the odds and survive the game. It could have been about an underground group toppling the biggest entertainment empire in the world for corrupting humanity. It could have been about the determination of a man to find his family again. Heck, it could have been all about one man trying to kill the bad guy. All of that, mixed together in a ninety minute movie, was just too much.
Lefty Gold territory if I watched it with friends, but that is an experiment for another time.