Chalk it up to fluke timing or the shifting pop culture landscape, but there’s a trio of Hollywood films this fall that deal directly with gaming by way of virtual reality storylines. Headlined by last weekend’s “Gamer” and soon to be followed by the Bruce Willis action flick “Surrogates” and December’s insanely hyped James Cameron epic “Avatar,” this trend suggests just how dominant gaming is becoming in the entertainment arena — dominant enough to tsked at by movies that are also arguably trying to mimic its qualities.
With stories centered on humans steering avatars through real-world settings, these three films deal with gaming’s fundamental mechanics and serve as commentaries on the medium that encroaching on cinema’s pop-cult supremacy. They’re spectacle-heavy genre flicks that are also critiques of their main competition for consumers’ time and money, reflecting the ever more frequent desire movies have shown to simultaneously emulate and malign the games that serve as their underlying subject matter.
Of the three, “Gamer” is the one that front-end tackles the growing clout of video games. It’s set in a near-future where a prime pastime is a “Sims” variant called “Society” that allows couch potatoes to manipulate — and live out their most deviant sexual fantasies through — human proxies. The most popular TV program is the “Running Man”-esque “Slayers,” in which death row inmates are controlled in warzone environments by teenage players.
As befitting a product of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the duo responsible for the “Crank” series, “Gamer” is first and foremost a balls-to-the-wall orgy of tasteless titillation and brutality, spliced together with the type of aneurysm-triggering editing that’s become standard for any movie attempting to convey the sensory-overload nature of games. Despite the fact that Neveldine/Taylor never make it clear if “Slayers” is a first- or third-person shooter (details, fellas, details!), “Gamer” is actually reasonably successful at replicating the hectic nature of shooters’ mayhem, not to mention the unchecked bloodlust and perverse impulses that compel so many to partake in, respectively, action titles and MMORPGs.
“Gamer”‘s take on the urges exploited by certain game genres is a contradictory one — its flashy, trashy celebration of porn and murder simulators is at odds with its condemnation of modern gaming’s (and television’s) burgeoning seediness. As is often the case with films about the dark side of violent/erotic cinema — I’m wagging my finger at you, Michael Haneke — Neveldine/Taylor’s latest aims to chastise the very things it’s selling, and such hypocrisy naturally undercuts their thesis.
A paradoxical portrait of gaming as something that’s both exhilarating and bad for you (and society at large), “Gamer” advances an ambiguous outlook that’s in line with many of its predecessors, from David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” to the Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe actioner “Virtuosity” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days.” In general, any film that has humans artificially interfacing with real or phony world — including “The Matrix” trilogy, an odyssey rooted in the twin desires to master and escape a synthetic environment — tends to show these interactions as thrilling avenues for indulging your wildest fantasies before finally concluding that such experiences lead to alienation and degeneration. In other words, virtual reality is like heroin: initially intoxicating, then fatally toxic.
Given how closely related this subgenre of films is to gaming, which in its very nature requires a player to manage some sort of avatar within a computerized space, this love/hate stance toward virtual reality can be seen as a sustained cinematic commentary on games themselves. For filmmakers, the aesthetics of games are things to be imitated, if only so they can keep up with rapidly changing tastes and expectations.
But mimicry can only go so far — since gaming has become a rival medium for the movies, gaming/virtual reality eventually has to be decried for causing harmful detachment from what’s real and true. And sometimes it’s a valid argument. But the single-minded critical opinion you find in these movies reeks of desperate defiance, coming off not just as a vain attempt to examine our increasingly digital age, but to slander a key 21st century rivals for global hearts and wallets.