This week’s big release Skyline looks…well, it doesn’t look good. It stars Six Feet Under‘s Eric Balfour and Dexter‘s David Zayas, both of whom I enjoy. But when the trailer for your movie makes audience members wonder, “What video game is this for?” you have issues. (And before I get flamed, I’m not dissing on gaming–but the resolution and movement of game graphics look a certain way, while movies that aren’t made for SyFy usually look another way. That said, I haven’t seen Call of Duty: Black Ops, which is apparently bigger than Jesus right now.) I still haven’t figured out exactly what Skyline is about, but I don’t particularly care enough to look for that information.
Sigh: yet another (probably) bad science fiction movie to add to the list. Sci fi is one of the oldest popular genres; some scholars believe it’s been around since 2150 B.C., while others argue its popular form emerged with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In film history, sci fi goes hand in giddy hand with horror as one of the genres that’s most capable of subverting cultural norms, of distilling our common fears and hopes into entertainment. Anyone who’s paying attention can trace sci fi and horror from day one to the present, comparing it to societal anxieties and desires along the way. In the earliest days of film, we aspired to visit the moon in a lovely, implausible contraption (Le Voyage dans la Lune). In the 1920s, we feared a dystopian factory world (Metropolis) and couldn’t wait to be thrilled by dinosaurs in action (this hasn’t changed much in eighty years). By the 50s we feared Commies and the A-bomb. In the 60s, we feared the Civil Rights movement and differences of all sorts, particularly those druggie, happy hippies. By the 80s, the rise of computers was in full swing: enter cyberpunk. It’s hard to step back far enough from the 90s-2010s to define what our major themes are–but it’s pretty clear from movies like Splice and even WALL*E that on some level we fear our advancing technology will outgrow us (and 2009′s District 9 did a lovely job distilling apartheid and racism into a gross, fun movie that makes you think).
In this edition of The Weekly Listicle, join Dan Fields, William Bibbiani, and me (Julia Rhodes!) as we explore science fiction through the decades and list some of our favorites. As a reminder, the Listicle doesn’t seek to rank its ten movies, nor is it positing that these are the best of that genre (unless explicitly stated). We’re just listing our favorites, and as always, feel free to chime in with your own!
The Day the Earth Stood Still (dir. Robert Wise, 1951)
The Day the Earth Stood Still is the alien attack film. Bernard Herrmann’s humming theremins, electric cellos and violins brought us the first eerie “flying saucer” noises, the likes of which Danny Elfman strove to replicate for Mars Attacks, and Hans Zimmer (whose scores often rip off Herrmann) played with in Signs. The 1951 movie tells the story of an alien race that visits Washington, D.C., bringing with it humanoid Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and enormous, infinitely destructive robot Gort (Hugh Marlowe). “We come in peace,” Klaatu says upon exiting the silver craft after it lands on the Ellipse in President’s Park–and just before an idiot soldier shoots him. That phrase has ingrained itself in American culture. The presiding thought among science fiction fanatics and authors is that, if alien life exists, it has probably advanced far beyond our primitive technologies, and therefore would be uninterested in waging war with Earth. This movie was one of the first to posit such a theory.
The 1950s were rife with social anxieties. One of Klaatu’s neighbors speculates he’s a communist (of course–because that was a worse thing to be in 1951 than an alien). Generals in the American Army tell Klaatu, “Our world is full of tensions and suspicions.” Our world is always going to be full of tensions and suspicions, but Klaatu left us with a warning: we must join other planets in peace or pursue our current course and face obliteration. The idea of a benevolent but dangerous, completely unfamiliar alien race (who nonetheless resemble humans) is one that’s been done again and again, but most adaptations of the story feature humans fighting for their rights. Independence Day‘s iconic shots of gawkers on NYC streets, alien craft hovering above the White House, cars halting in traffic while drivers step out to look into the foreboding sky…that all comes from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Unlike ID4, The Day the Earth Stood Still portrays humans as weak and silly, violent and not the least bit self-righteous.
The film’s incredibly well-written script still resonates almost 60 years later. Klaatu says to a reporter, “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” Well, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally for Sanity may not have made the kind of impact it should’ve, but I attended–and discovered there are still millions out there who are with you, Klaatu. People of earth unite for reason!
The Faculty (dir. Robert Rodriguez, 1998)
Now, you’re probably wondering how I got from the classic, critically adored The Day the Earth Stood Still to Robert Rodriguez’s laughable horror-sci fi-teen flick The Faculty. Well, let me explain. The Faculty is derivative, but as it’s penned by Kevin Williamson, it’s also extremely self-aware–though not nearly as smartly written as say, Scream. The movie starts following a group of high school students who mostly avoid each other on principle: the Brain (Elijah Wood’s Casey), the Athlete (Shawn Hatosy’s Stan), the Basketcase (Clea DuVall’s Stokely), The Princess (Jordana Brewster’s Delilah), and the Criminal (Josh Hartnett’s Zeke). Recognize this formula yet? Perhaps from a certain Brat Pack movie? Enter Marybeth Louise Hutchinson of Atlanta (Laura Harris), who doesn’t fit in the equation, and guess who the alien is. Because Robert Rodriguez helmed the movie, there are a fair amount of horror stars among the faculty: Carrie‘s Piper Laurie, T2‘s Robert Patrick, and From Dusk til Dawn‘s Salma Hayek appear (along with, randomly, Jon Stewart, who is apparently haunting me).
Somehow or other, an alien race decided to take over the Herrington High starting with the faculty. These aliens don’t turn their hosts into pod people, though. Stokely explains to Casey that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a blatant rip-off of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, in which the aliens are parasites. An alien attack is laughably implausible (it is Ohio after all), but Casey rightly wonders, “If you were going to take over the world, would you blow up the White House Independence Day-style, or would you sneak in the back door?” Indeed, sir.
In The Faculty, the aliens are pelagic (sea-dwelling) and need copious amounts of water to survive. The teens find that Zeke’s basement chemistry set diuretic drug, “magic dust,” kills the critters. This of course means that, to prove their identities, each teen has to snort some drugs. Peer pressure!! Take this to prove you’re cool! It’s ham-handed but funny. The movie also contains some good one-liners: “I’m not an alien, I’m discontent.” “Maybe ‘The X-Files’ was right…how do we know Spielberg, Lucas, Sonnenfeld, Emmerich didn’t encounter aliens in their high schools?” As a film geek, I have an unmitigated love for self-referential scripts that pay due respect to the very material they’re ripping off.
It’s not a good movie. It is, however, a fun one.
Jurassic Park (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Jurassic Park, on the other hand, is actually a fantastic movie. Before his death in 2008, Michael Crichton was at the forefront of popular science fiction for decades, and his novels about bringing dinosaurs back to life tapped into the collective fascination with prehistoric critters–as well as a fear of “playing God,” an anxiety toward science. If anyone was appropriate to take on the movie, it was Spielberg. The movie has so embedded itself in pop culture that there’s no need for a rundown, but here’s a short summary: wacky rich guy John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, he of the silky nature program narration) finances a theme park that’ll allow humans to interact one-on-one with dinosaurs, painstakingly brought back to life from mosquitoes encapsulated in amber for thousands of years. Hammond employs paleontologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), as well as chaos theory expert and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to check out the park…and duh, things go horribly awry.
Even seventeen years later, ILM and Stan Winston’s effects hold up incredibly well. You’d be hard-pressed to find dinosaurs that look this good–this real, for lack of a better term–in any more recent film. The T-Rex, velociraptors, dilophosaurs, and brachiosaurs are breathtaking to behold. The movie’s pacing is brilliant (though it maybe moves too quickly through exposition at the beginning), its tone perfect (frightening, but funny and endearing), and its scares just enough to keep you wondering what’ll happen next (I mean, who was expecting Sam Jackson’s severed arm?). High school bands everywhere learned to play John Williams’s beautiful score–one of his most currently recognizable next to the Harry Potter theme (though the Jaws music is more iconic). Considering the way technological innovations in film have changed science fiction, it’s amazing just how awesome Jurassic Park still looks and sounds almost twenty years later.
The original, 1925 picture The Lost World was one of the first to bring dinos to life, with 1933′s King Kong following not too long after. As a people, we can’t help but be fascinated with prehistoric life that we’ll never get to experience for ourselves–and Crichton and Spielberg tapped this fear/adoration and made it into a movie that’s as amazing now as it was in ’93. It’s worth noting that in Jurassic Park, those who disrespect nature bite the big one, while those who have a healthy dose of humility manage to make it through. It’s a movie that has faith in the nerds and theorists: Malcolm muses, “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates Man, Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs…” and Ellie chimes in, “Dinosaurs eat man, women inherit the earth.” These people knew exactly what they were messing with, and it served them well (as it should the rest of us). On a side note: I saw Jurassic Park in a drive-in movie theater, and I think it’s among the best movies to ever see in that format. Where have all the drive-ins gone?
The Stepford Wives (dir. Bryan Forbes, 1975)
Originally I was going to write about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which is a great movie (apparently Boyle’s latest, 127 Hours, is also awesome). Then I started thinking about the cultural implications of 1970s sci-fi and realized I finally have an opportunity to write about The Stepford Wives.
To be honest, The Stepford Wives freaked me out more when I was a teenager than Pet Sematary had when I was ten. Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) moves with her husband and kids away from NYC to Stepford, Connecticut, a suburb where, well, everything’s just coming up roses. Also: dead women replaced by horrifyingly perky, vapid, housewifey androids.
Ross’s Joanna is the very picture of independence, happiness, and freedom before she moves to Stepford, and her newfound friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) is about as concerned with housekeeping as she is with the mating habits of ladybugs. The pair, plus a few other Stepford housewives, form a Women’s Lib consciousness-raising group–but the men stop that in its tracks. The Stepford Men’s Club is run by Dale “Diz” Coba, who used to work for Disneyland, creating animatronic creatures. When the Men’s Club visits the Eberhart home, “Diz” pops up behind Joanna in the kitchen and with an utterly serene smile, mutters, “I just love watching women do little domestic duties.” One of the gentlemen sketches her, while another records her recitation of the dictionary…and the final scene of the movie is enough to raise goosebumps on the arms of even the most seasoned feminist.
The movie is based on a book by Ira Levin, who also wrote Rosemary’s Baby. He showed a remarkably prescient, sympathetic attitude toward the women’s movement in the ’60s; Rosemary’s Baby is about an hysterical woman, abused by men, proven horribly right. The Stepford Wives is about men’s desire to subjugate women, to ignore the budding women’s lib movement and make them slaves. Spooky, spooky shiz–and still frighteningly relevant even today. Admittedly, I’m playing over here at the edges of the sci-fi genre. The Stepford Wives probably falls more clearly into the horror or thriller section of Netflix. But it is a clear instance of androids in film, complete with beep-bop-booping on the soundtrack and faulty wiring causing broken-record jerks and twitches and glitches.
As an aside, the Nicole Kidman-Faith Hill-Bette Midler remake of this movie in 2004 completely dismissed the original point and made it into a comedy. Because it’s hilarious, right? Oh, and Joanna gets to live. The point: you missed it.
Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979)
Ridley Scott’s Alien towers head and shoulders over most other movies set in space, and with good reason. Unless you happened to be George Lucas, it was no easy matter in the 1970s and 80s to make distant planets, starships, and extraterrestrial monsters seem lifelike and interesting. Too many without the necessary talent, resources, or sense of scale have tried.
Alien is best known for its bizarre and terrifying featured creature, dubbed (in the sequel, I think) “Xenomorph” – a horrific, eyeless, insect-like predator who invades the bodies of lesser beings to propagate its horrible species. The crew of a mining ship, on a many-lightyear trip back home, diverts course to answer a distress signal originating from an uncharted and barren planet where… something… bad… lives. Soon, an alien being has gotten aboard their ship, and they must hunt it down before it returns the favor. The alien, famously designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, appears in several stages of its grotesque life cycle, but the star of the show is the full-grown animal, which is all the more scary because it has a habit of luring humans into dark, isolated places before striking.
This was almost certainly a practical decision, made by a director who wisely realized that life-size creature puppets often look silly, not frightening, if not kept partially in the dark. But the payoff is an atmosphere of pure dread. The bowels of the ship are a damp, shadowy tangle of conduits and wires, where a nimble predator can make a comfortable nest and pick you and your friends off one by one. And there’s not much you can do about it. In the other corner, we have a crew featuring accomplished actors of the era. Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ian Holm stand out, as does Sigourney Weaver, whom this film established as one hell of an action star. Again, that’s really more true of the sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens, but this brooding thriller is where it all started. As Lieutenant Ripley, Weaver is forced into one desperate situation after another, and she consistently proves herself tougher than the rest.
Naturally, the biggest attraction of Alien is the alien, but as a whole the film is a finely crafted work of science fiction. The premise is believable because the characters make sense. They are blue-collar workers – convivial, crass, burned out, ready to go home – whom “The Company” saddles with a mission just a little bit too suicidal for their qualifications. They are not soldiers, not Starship Troopers, and so it makes sense that the alien initially gets a pretty big upper hand on them. They are, however, used to working with their hands, and prove quite resourceful. The world in which they live is futuristic only from a technological standpoint. Very little has changed about human nature. As a backdrop to the alien story, Ripley uncovers a plot by the distant and faceless “establishment” to sell its human resources out in the interest of science. The unraveling of this mystery anchors the here-and-now survival story with a great deal of dramatic weight.
The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg, 1986)
The Fly is a very weird film. For those who have not seen it, Jeff Goldblum seldom comes to mind as a logical choice for a tragic hero. Then again, director David Cronenberg does not generally go in for conventional romance. These two major players in the production flex some different muscles here, and it really works.
Re-imagined from the campy Vincent Price feature of 1958, this mid-80s effort brings all kinds of new anxieties into play. At one time or another, many prominent sci-fi and monster films of this period have been analyzed as paranoid allegories about drug abuse and sexually transmitted disease. Calling John Carpenter’s The Thing an AIDS parable – I have seen it in print – is a bit of a stretch for me. With this film, it seems a little more likely that the message is intentionally implicit. The underlying horror of the story is uncertainty about the things we put into our bodies, whether for love or science, and the terrible ways in which they might have the power to change us. The movie examines these themes in much the same way that the saucer and monster films of the 1950s adapted Cold War anxiety about Communism and nuclear fallout into killer mutants and little green men. I was all prepared to write about two of my favorites of that era, Earth Versus The Flying Saucers, and the superb Fiend Without A Face – remember the one about the radioactive brain-and-spinal-cord creature that went about strangling folks? – but I think the same basic concepts are at work here, and given the choice of one or the other to watch over and over, The Fly wins in my book.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is an excitable genius on the verge of an astounding scientific breakthrough – instantaneous matter transportation. He has built two futuristic-looking pods, between which he can transfer whole objects through the complex breakdown and reassembly of atoms. The only hitch is that living matter doesn’t always come through the same as it went in. Searching for the final key to his problem, he becomes his own test subject. Little does he know that a solitary housefly (and all its nasty little atoms) has gotten tangled up in the mix as well.
In the original film, the monster came out all at once, as the scientist found himself bearing the monstrous head of a fly, and vice versa. The transformation of Brundle is more gradual and insidious. At first he believes he’s evolving into a whole new superman, given his skyrocketing metabolism and newfound agility. Then the changes start becoming grotesque, then outright hideous. The scientific breakthrough he thought he has made is nothing compared to the one he really stumbled upon. Goldblum plays his piteous decline with real pathos, like somebody with any garden-variety terminal illness. Right up to the end, he’s a rather personable oddball who realizes too late that he’s out of his depth. His girlfriend (Geena Davis), first fascinated by the science of it all, soon finds herself drawn into romance. Then, as the romance and the science blur together for Brundle, she desperately tries to escape the clutches of both.
Be warned, if you don’t already know, that this movie is pretty gross. For Cronenberg, turning a man into a fly does not simply mean compound eyes. Think back to National Geographic and remember all you can about the body mechanics, life cycle, and especially the eating habits of flies. Yes, children, it all happens to this guy. But if you have the stomach, it really is a powerful and fascinating drama. In many ways, it could be a drama about cocaine addiction or AIDS, but it isn’t. It’s about a man losing his humanity and turning into a giant insect. Splice a little science into a work of timely fiction, and you’ve got good solid sci-fi that tempers its monster makeup with a grim but touching fable about the human tendency to be more clever than wise.
Critters (dir. Stephen Herek, 1986)
Critters is one of history’s best goofs on alien invasion. It is a supremely silly sci-fi horror comedy about a gang of small, fuzzy, mean-spirited little fanged beings who crash land on Earth and begin eating everything in sight. They’re much cuter than Gremlins, but just as nasty to tangle with. They are the Krites – it might be “Crites,” but I’ve seen it written both ways and I prefer the K spelling. True to space-invader tradition, the Krites crash their ship into some backwater farmland. After eating the first thing they see – a cow – they entrench themselves at the local farm. Finding it inhabited, they lay siege to it.
The Krites are fugitives on the run for crimes against the galaxy. Recall, if you will, that they literally eat everything. So the ruling powers of outer space send two top-of-the-line bounty hunters after them. At first, we feel these hulking, cannon-toting, faceless aliens must be pretty polished operators. Then they land on Earth and cause twice as much trouble as if they had stayed away and allowed the Krites to devour Kansas whole. They assume the guise of Earthlings – one a prominent MTV rockstar, the other a series of local townsfolk that they encounter – his inability to decide on one disguise is the movie’s big running joke. They shoot up the bowling alley, the church, and eventually – finally! – the farm where the Krites are actually causing all the trouble.
This movie does not take itself at all seriously, thank goodness. Otherwise it would be dead in the water. It is just supposed to be fun, and it is. Dee Wallace, of E.T. and The Howling, is in attendance, as is a young Billy Zane. All your favorite stock characters, from troublesome and precocious young boy, to shotgun-ready farmer, to village idiot, to shiftless lawman, get their turn to battle the invading forces, all with disastrous and hilarious consequences.
The dual alien-invasion story helps fill out the already-brief film with plenty of entertaining mischief and mayhem. In addition to the hapless humans and the bumbling bounty hunters, the Krites themselves are great little characters. They’re ugly, rude, ferocious, and yet surprisingly adorable. At one point they even roll up like hedgehogs and… attack! Ridiculous as Critters is, the Krites will always be some of my favorite movie monsters. They are just about the antithesis of Giger’s alien, but they have personality to spare. In a picture like this, that really counts.
This is one of those movies you can find almost any day of the year on some back-burner channel, between 10:00pm and dawn, on any television in America. It will not stimulate or challenge your serious notions of what’s out there in the universe. It is superior fare for a drive-in or a TV dinner night. It is the kind of fun we all owe ourselves now and then.
“Dr. Who” (created by Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber, Donald Wilson, et al, 1963-Present)
Take a moment and look at the dates up there. “Dr. Who” took a break for most of the 1990s, but otherwise has remained on television for going on 50 years. Why is that? Well, it’s not because it’s great science fiction. Actually, let me rephrase that. It’s not because “Dr. Who” is hard science fiction, a genre which bases its hypotheses about the future and the existence of alien races on concrete facts. No, “Dr. Who” is science fantasy at its best. The science fiction aspects of the series, from strange species to incredible technologies, are merely window dressing for a world of compelling characters struggling to succeed in the face of extreme pessimism.
The Doctor, real name unknown (even after more than 30 seasons), is an ancient being known as a Time Lord. He’s over 900 years old and, thankfully for the show’s producers, regenerates into a new body (and potentially new personality) every time the old one dies. He’s been played by over 11 actors over the years (not all of them canonical) and he really loves in the human race. For some reason, he spends a lot of time on Earth (budgetary constraints, mostly), and his loyal companions (too many to be worth counting here), are usually normal human beings through which this ancient, Godlike being can experience vicarious childlike wonder at the past, the future, the universe, and most importantly himself. He’s a very complicated character – I always liked fan-favorite David Tennant’s description of The Doctor: “A lonely God” – and like many I love him to pieces.
But why put a science fantasy series on a list of science fiction? I give “Doctor Who” a pass because he actually inhabits a world devoid of magic and indeed any of the other “fantastical” elements of storytelling. Sure, the devil shows up orbiting a black hole and The Doctor fights vampires in medieval Venice, but the Devil is nothing more than an ancient psychic alien imposing its subconscious influence on the farthest reaches of the universe, and vampires, naturally, are just alien fish with hologram projectors that get confused around mirrors. There’s not a problem in the universe that can be explained, and more importantly solved, by logic, and that’s all the science fiction it needs to qualify: a belief in science above all else. It’s not hard science fiction, it’s pure science fiction, just a bit soft around the edges.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (dir. Alan J.W. Bell, 1981) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (dir. Garth Jennings, 2005)
The two adaptations of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are two sides of the same coin, if not the same damned side, and I’m going to risk being unpopular by saying I actually prefer the newer version. (Just a little.) But both are fine adaptations, hilarious and reasonably faithful to the source material, and both a teensy bit flawed.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy captured my imagination at a young age. Douglas Adams is a profoundly witty writer, but more than that he’s got a distinct outlook on life, whether it be on Earth and in the farthest reaches of the galaxy. It’s a very pessimistic viewpoint that insists that people – of any species – are intrinsically idiots, and that as a whole everyone is inconsequential, and not even equally so. “Space,” he writes. “Is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-boggingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. Listen…”
And yet here we are, on the planet Earth, thinking our actions matter even though Earth itself barely warrants an entry in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a repository of knowledge that is largely apocryphal but has successfully supplanted the “Encyclopedia Galactica” as the most widely used intellectual resource in existence (successfully predicting Wikipedia 30 years early). Even after we find out that Earth actually was important in the grand scheme of things, it’s right back to being inconsequential again, having been demolished whole chapters ago (in book form) and way back in the first act in either adaptation.
The BBC version of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is long, faithful, and a little dry, but it benefits from the original (and extremely talented) radio cast that popularized the material in the first place. It also suffers from whopping budgetary constraints and plays like a rather drawn-out episode of the older seasons “Dr. Who” as a result. Garth Jenning’s more elaborate adaptation also boasts a nigh-perfect cast – including Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell and Martin Freeman – but tacks on unnecessary subplots like the search for the most powerful weapon in the universe (it makes the target see the world from the shooter’s perspective), and an uncharacteristically happy ending. But both versions are also delightful romps that capture the spirit – if not necessarily the essence – of Adams’ hilarious and pointed worldview. Both are highly recommended.
Gamer (dir. Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who apparently like to be credited as Neveldine/Taylor for some reason, directed the wonderful Crank, the abysmal Crank 2: High Voltage, and of course Gamer, which has yet to be hailed as their best film. I cannot for the life of me fathom why. Maybe the film is too damned entertaining to be appreciated as intelligent science fiction. Maybe it’s too damned satirical about what qualifies as “entertainment” for some people to get the joke. Or maybe the days of exceptional sci-fi movies that also work as a major Hollywood releases are over. Gamer is the heir-apparent to Robocop and Total Recall, but hardly anyone seems to have noticed.
Gamer, for those who don’t know, takes place in a (science) fictional future in which the most popular form of entertainment is a new kind of gaming. Much like videogames, which the film satirizes mercilessly, these pastimes, called “Society” and “Slayers” respectively, allow the player to control not a simulated in-game avatar, but an actual human being who willingly submits to this treatment for personal gain. In “Society,” these volunteers run around like idiots, have sex, eat bugs and otherwise debase themselves for the players’ amusement. They’re paid in cash. In “Slayers,” convicted felons allow teenagers to control them in real Deathmatches. If the convicts survive enough matches – or rather, if their players don’t get them killed – they can eventually go free. It’s like The Running Man only better, and this is coming from a guy who really loves The Running Man.
Gamer uses a series of fairly standard action clichés to keep the story grounded. Gerard Bulter stars as “Kable,” and the misspelling is a cute touch, since presumably the properly spelled gamer tag was taken. Kable’s a convicted murderer with just a few rounds of Slayer left before he can go free, but of course he’s innocent of his crime and it was all a big conspiracy anyway. But the ending, which has one of those “Oops, The Villain Didn’t Know The Camera Was On” moments, comes a bit too easily, and some of the satirical digs at real videogaming culture are a bit unfair. Okay fine, some gamers are overweight individuals living vicariously through simulated experiences, but do these types have to be portrayed as morbidly obese, misogynistic closeted sociopaths who apparently smear themselves in Vaseline every morning? No, as a videogame enthusiast and critic I am mildly offended by the implication. Mildly.
But Gamer compensates for these oversimplications with astoundingly clever implementations of traditional gaming tropes. There are of course the classic ethical quandaries – gamers view their avatars as disposable toys, the avatars feel very differently about it – but also key plot points revolving around Kable’s ping (the fraction of a second between his player’s commands and his ability to act on them, essentially his handicap), and naturally the greater implications of the media’s ability to control the actions of consumers. Gamer is an astoundingly clever film that for some reason gets points deducted for being a total blast. I say it’s a winner anyway.