Gamer (2009)

Rated: R for frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language.
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: DHBC=D
Budget: $12.5 million
Box Office: $38 million (21 U.S., 18 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Both made Crank 1+2, Pathology)
Starring: Gerard Butler, Amber Valletta, Michael C. Hall, Kyra Sedgwick, Logan Lerman, and Ludacris.

In the near future, neurological technology makes it possible for one human to completely control another human even while enjoying the sensations that person experiences. At first, people get paid to be avatars in a world modeled on the Sims. In the next phase, death row convicts volunteer for a shooter-style game which offers them the hope of release if they survive long enough.

Entertainment Value: D
First and foremost, you should know that this is a hard R movie and no children should be watching it at all. Period. The style of this movie is very similar to the Crank movies and some of the other recent action movies (such as Lock Stock, and Two Smoking Barrells, Rocknrolla, Shoot ‘Em Up, Domino, and especially Smokin’ Aces) that might well be described as frantic overstimulation which will only appeal to the youngest, most electronically overdosed sort of person. This means it’s very hard to follow. Once again, we see a movie which has a very interesting premise which then gets turned into an over-the-top visual assault rather than a true science-fiction movie driven by story and characters with enough inactive time for tension to develop.

Superficial Content: H
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity F, Violence H, Language F
Seriously. I don’t recommend this movie to anyone. NC-17. The violence is constant. The profanity is very heavy. And there is enough sexuality and nudity to rate an R on that alone.

Significant Content: B
All that being said, the movie is trying to send a fairly good message. I doubt it succeeds at this message because I think this is another case of wrapping a pretty strong warning in so much stimulation contrary to that warning that it doesn’t linger. Still, it’s trying to say that most modern gaming is fundamentally depraved, not because it uses real humans, but because the people who play Sims and shooter games are precisely the people who would instantly subscribe to play real human avatars if that became available. As Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter) says at one point, “You can get paid to be controlled or you can pay to control.” The theme of manipulation is strong here, including the initially outrageous but intriguing idea that there’s a certain security in giving up decision-making for your own life to someone else for a time.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
As I said, the frantic pace and R+ content really inhibits people like me from enjoying this. And I worry that they are so enjoyable to precisely the people who need to think about what this movie is saying that they’ll miss the point in their oohs and aahs over the effects and action. Also, this movie happens to fall into a genre which has already been pretty well explored in much better ways before. Running Man, Gladiator, Strange Days, and Death Race are the most obvious examples, but I also have a fond spot for the lesser known Thirteenth Floor, the first movie that ever seriously raised the question of whether virtual characters should be thought of as moral beings and whether behavior in virtual worlds has ethical content. Also, newspeople love to have something to despise, especially when they secretly find it alluring themselves.

Discussion Questions:
~What does it mean to be human? What happens to people when the consequences for their choices are suffered by others? Why do you think the players were laughing to see their avatars get hurt?
~Why is it important to have strict limits on what we allow people to do with even their own bodies? We don’t allow people to sell themselves into slavery or become prostitutes or sell their organs. Why? Can libertarians answer this question coherently? Are there any “voluntary” choices which must not be allowed? Why does money make the choice different from voluntary? Do social structures and the pressure of circumstances ever coerce people into making desperate choices?
~Are there some choices which no person would ever rationally make and therefore should never rationally be allowed to make? What things should not be allowed to be bought and sold?
~Are there any occupations which are like “Society” right now?
~What is the ethical difference between manipulating a purely digital Sim in a gaming world and manipulating a real person who has voluntarily chosen to get paid to do such work? What does it say about a person that he enjoys shooting people or creating sinful relationships in a game? Even if he never does this in real life, is that because he is actually good or because he’s merely afraid of the consequences?
~How does money flowing into illicit endeavors shift the availability of jobs away from more legitimate enterprises which might otherwise hire the people who would feel the need to seek employment at the awful places if they were allowed?
~Have you ever thought it might be appealing to have all your decisions made for you by someone else? Would that make it easier to not feel guilty for the consequences? How is this impulse realized by people who join strict religions or cults?
~In a world where people are being violated in so many different ways for fun, why do you think cheating at a game would still hold so much moral significance?
~How would you get people to really think about the ethical problems of gaming and movies like this without simultaneously reinforcing those depraved desires?
~What things in your life do you enjoy having contempt for?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Simon sitting in his futuristic electronic command center. How different is this really from the techno-bubble of most teens today?
~The Society scene where the avatars crash into each other while their operators are laughing with Bloodhound Gang’s “Discovery Channel” playing in the background. What is being said at this moment regarding our depravity and what it means to be human? Is Society merely the logical endpoint of a materialist view of humanity?
Overall Grade: D
The psychedelic frantic action style of Crank is not enjoyable to watch. However, if you know a young adult who has (unfortunately) seen this movie, discussing these questions with him may at least give you a chance to help him think more deeply about some things.

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