You probably missed Gamer. I missed Gamer. It was a 2009 movie with a terrible title, a terrible trailer, and reviews that ranged from mediocre to damning. One particular review said that it was “a film that tries to criticize the commercialization of violence, even though it itself is commercialized violence,” the cinematic equivalent of being a libertarian who drives their kid on public roads to public school. It was an undermarketed, maligned and seemingly clichéd romp that began with Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams” (“cause, like, y’know, it’s like, it’s a nightmare”) and failed to recoup the $50 million it cost to make.
As a scholar of things people don’t watch because they’re poorly marketed, I’m fascinated by Gamer as a genuinely subversive and beautiful movie. Its premise is that the American prison system is overwhelmed, and thus death row inmates can now be controlled by gamers in the real-life avatar shoot-’em up Slayers. If they’re piloted to victory 30 times, they’ll be given their freedom. Kable, played by Gerard Butler doing some sort of accent, is controlled by whiny rich kid Simon and has won 27 games, and both he and Kable have become internet celebrities.
The bad guy here is Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall, also doing some sort of accent), a campy extrovert that created nanites that allow one human to control another, resulting in both Slayers and the Second Life–style gig economy nightmare called Society, where you can either be paid to be controlled or control someone else.
Perhaps it’s 2019 talking, but even when I first saw Gamer a year after its release I never quite felt it was a movie about games. It’s a grotesque, pornographically violent discussion of what our baser instincts would lead us to given the chance, and of the dehumanization of paid labor. And, in its own inimitably sleazy way, it’s a farsighted warning about the politics of tech.
Written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (the duo behind Crank and its sequel), Gamer’s cast is honestly wonderful and better than a movie with a premise like this deserves. Butler works in the role he’s given, supporting roles are owned by Terry Crews, Kyra Sedgwick, John Leguizamo, and Ludacris, but the true star is the horrifying piece of shit that is Hall. His Castle is an aggressively charming, over-the-top media darling that sees Kable’s potential death (and the deaths of other prisoners) as an entertainment product sure to find a market—“they’ll be seduced by the power of violence,” he predicts. “The dominance. It’s human nature.”
Castle is a pantomime villain that sees humans as devices—avatars to play with, monetize, and execute at will, and he’s only a slightly hyperbolic version of any tech CEO willing to build AI for weapons or casually disavow responsibility for people’s deaths. What makes him truly different is how media-ready he is. Though Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg wield power, they’re awkward, fumbling, unconfident when pressed and at times easily goaded. Castle is poised despite being asked if his product murders people, is proud of the numerous jobs he creates in Society, and bereft of remorse when it comes to the deaths of those who play Slayers. Mark Neveldine described Castle to me as “a kid in a candy store.”
Critic Steven Shaviro wrote at length about the movie soon after its release, in effectively the only thoughtful discussion of the movie I could find. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of his analysis (he genuinely thinks the use of “Sweet Dreams” is poignant, versus being the most blunt object you can use in a dystopian movie), he makes a crucial point about the neoliberal fantasy of Gamer. This world features a prison system that is funded through entertainment and expendable lives, a society that makes “good” on the “bad” people, and makes those without jobs productive by turning them into playthings. It’s a dream for people who tweet that they love the FBI: making the incarcerated “useful,” with an emphasis on the use.
Gamer nailed everything that The Purge series, which started four years later, gets praised for. It also, Manson aside, feels far less of a “we live in a society.” Though it’s hard to believe there’s subtlety in such gore and violence, the fact that the law is being followed as people use others to debase themselves is what makes it so brutal to watch.
If anything, Slayers, and ultimately the plot of Gamer, are an almost too on-the-nose allegory for capitalism. Castle’s promise that “[if] you stay alive for 30 sessions, you get set free … not a bad goddamn deal, right?” is a darker, crueler version of the ideal that you can simply hustle your way to freedom, that anyone can through sheer strength of will overcome circumstance and be rich and successful, despite the fact that it is on the surface nearly impossible, and by the end of the movie definitely impossible to do so. To the outside world, this is a beautiful dream to aspire to—anyone can be free, if they just work hard enough.
But in reality, it’s all controlled by a cruel, greedy, child-like CEO. You don’t have a chance. You are the product.
Gamer came about after Gerard Butler didn’t do Crank. Seriously.
Crank was written in 2003 specifically for Johnny Knoxville, which was really before he did movies and was focused on Jackass, Neveldine told me. “We just saw him as this American outlaw…[a] completely flawed character…and we wrote it with him in mind. But when we made the offer, because William Morris Independent picked it up first, we went to Brad Pitt…the team liked it, but they ultimately passed. After that, Lakeshore [Entertainment] had the idea to go to this guy who was kind of getting hot from hosting, and doing some movies.
“So we made the offer to Chris Rock.”
After Chris Rock or his team (Mark wasn’t sure) passed on the movie, nothing happened with the script until Lakeshore brought it up again. Eventually they met Jason Statham and sold him over a pack of Heineken, despite Statham claiming “he wasn’t funny.”
Butler, who Neveldine had known since working with him on 2001’s Jewel of the Sahara, eventually got in touch saying he loved the Gamer script. The rest is (mostly but unfairly forgotten) history.
To Mark Neveldine, there’s an inevitability to Gamer. “There will be a central unit that will have access to all of us in one way or another…When I do go down the Rabbit Hole, I love that Rabbit Hole.”
One of the ways Neveldine travels down the Rabbit Hole when he introduces the final showdown between Kable and Castle. A confused Kable watches as Castle and a group of nanite-controlled soldiers dance to Sammy Davis Jr.’s version “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” before they point to a screen showing video of every member of the rebel group lying dead. Castle is light-hearted, enjoying himself, lip-syncing the song before he throws the soldiers one by one to get their ass kicked by Gerard Butler. It’s such a weird scene because it should be terrible, but Michael C. Hall’s tightrope walk between vaudeville and serious acting works so well against Butler’s confusion that it’s almost chilling. It shows Castle as a gross provocateur, an aberration of every CEO that sees people below him as playthings to be used, to be made fun of, to be broken and discarded at will.
Without totally spoiling the movie, Castle’s eventual goal is to control everyone with his nanites, out of a quasi-utilitarian belief that he knows best, that he can direct us all, that ultimately he will be the one in control. I’m honestly sure that I’d be more scared of Zuckerberg having this level of control only because I don’t think I’ve seen him display an emotion.
Neveldine naturally believed that Castle’s end-goal was to bring about the Singularity—an AI that would surpass human intelligence and, eventually, control us all.
“There’s was a part in the movie, I don’t know if you caught it, where the guy thinks he has a chip in his head [a man literally rips the control module from the back of his head], not realizing that it’s not a chip, right?” Neveldine recalls. “Whether this is nanotechnology or sort of an intelligent plasma that goes in there—the idea that if Castle is ahead of this and he’s ultimately in control of this, then when he uploads his brain into this system, he is the future God. He is the Game God.”
“Game God” was actually the original title of the movie—but Gamer was chosen by the studio. It is failure of marketing that the original title was all about money and power and control, but the final title was picked to appeal to teens who were really into Modern Warfare 2.
“At the time,” Neveldine said, “it seemed somewhat relevant and gaming was getting big and that term was being thrown around. It was definitely not our first choice. Simply, ‘Game God’ was what we wanted and we also liked ‘Citizen Game.’ We really enjoyed that, but [Gerard] Butler had a movie coming out called something like ‘Upright Citizens Brigade.’ It was, like, something with Jamie Foxx.”
(He meant Law Abiding Citizen, but now I will never stop thinking of Gerard Butler aggressively yelling “YES, AND???” at a stunned group of 20-something improv kids.)
Gamer itself is a cynical approach to technology, one steeped in paranoia and anxiety about a future controlled by the rich and by machines. From 2016 to 2018, Neveldine actually went phoneless, spending his time hunting, farming, breaking what he calls “an addiction … but not like a coffee or cigarette addiction.”
“Day one, I was wanting to click and whatnot. Day two, I was checking my pocket. On Day Three, it’s as if I’d never had a cellphone before. I never went back from there. That addiction goes away so quickly because you realize, ‘Oh, I’ve got so many other things I’ve got to do.’” Through one lens, Gamer is a horror story about a world in which you can’t unplug. Or perhaps a cautionary tale.
“Why do we have to read the comments and see the lives of everybody else?” Neveldine asks, likening Gamer’s dystopia to our own social-media obsession. “Obviously, when you see how big reality TV is, it’s the same thing. They knew that was going to work really well. People like to watch other people’s drama, but you really can have a lot of fun by unplugging, and it’s just as much fun as Castle was having in Gamer, but you realize you are controlling yourself.”
Gamer is a B-movie, an unapologetic exploitation flick that, like all exploitation flicks, is packaged in buzzwords of the moment. But, like the very best of the genre, its deeper fears are timeless—and prescient.