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SYFY WIRE Gerard Butler

Gamer Was a Weird, Wild Sci-Fi Action Flick Ahead of Its Time

The creators of Crank press play on serious sci-fi — and totally clobber the final boss.

By Benjamin Bullard
Angie (Amber Valletta) wears an orange wig as a man holds her face in Gamer (2009).

There’s a new Hellboy movie set to hit theaters this year, and it’s directed by Brian Taylor — one-half of the directing duo (alongside Mark Neveldine) responsible for creating Jason Statham’s amped-up adult comedy franchise Crank, as well as fueling Nicolas Cage’s fire as Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Neveldine and Taylor are also the creative minds behind Gamer (streaming on Peacock here), a sci-fi action flick that didn’t make its budget back at the box office and failed to resonate with most critics upon its 2009 release. All that bygone critical and fan neglect is unfortunate, and, dare we say it, perhaps even a product of more blithe and breezy times — because 15 years after its debut, not one second of Gamer shows its age onscreen or feels anything less than prescient when it comes to thinking big about the dystopian possibilities of marrying corporate-powered tech to the sinister guiding hand of state control.

Not just a game: How Gamer plays with dystopian prophecy

That sounds like an ambitiously high conceptual bar for a freaky, frenzied action movie starring badass Gerard Butler as a death-row prisoner trapped in a globally-broadcast battle royale to win his freedom. And by the end of Gamer, viewers expecting blood, bullets, and brutal body shots definitely won’t come away disappointed. But the movie’s lengthy, slickly choreographed arena gunfights — all unfolding between traumatized inmates as a cynically eager audience gobbles it up like some violent, Hunger Games-style Super Bowl — serve as an alluring Trojan horse that conceals some incredibly smart sci-fi speculation about the dark implications of letting technology, money, and power all coalesce into a behemoth systemic entity capable of crushing the spirit of the individual.

RELATED: Could You Control Another Person with Your Mind, Like in Gamer?

Butler stars as marked-for-death inmate John "Kable" Tillman, who even from behind bars has fought his way into worldwide superstardom as the top-performing death row fighter in a beyond-virtual reality broadcast game called Slayers. The creation of tech mastermind Ken Castle (Dexter star Michael C. Hall), Slayers is one of two reality-tweaking gamer simulations that’s taken the entertainment world by storm (and made Castle, in the process, the world’s richest entrepreneur). Society is the name of Castle’s other big sim, and though it’s far less violent (and only a little less ethically questionable), it shares with Slayers the innovative feature of casting real-life human beings as player avatars, each wired in and controlled by a corresponding gamer (from the safe and comfortable confines of home, of course) with a remorseless and sometimes cruel absence of empathy.

Kable (Gerard Butler) appears with wide eyes and black grime all over his face in Gamer (2009).

The tech that allows human beings to function as obedient flesh-and-blood player characters has a suitably geeky in-movie explanation, but the key thing is that it owes its whole existence to Castle — a guy who might’ve had to sweep a few shameful dealings under the rug along the way, in order to win the necessary government clearances and policy permissions that make his hyper-human, virtual-reality fantasyland possible. By the movie’s midpoint, you begin to realize that Kable’s fight to conquer Slayers and escape his death row fate is only half of the larger story setup, as Gamer begins to stack some noir-ish layers of plot intrigue that pave the way for even bigger revelations about his deeper hidden history with Castle’s company (not to mention the U.S. military) as one of the technology’s less-than-willing early human test subjects.

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Right from Gamer’s very first herky-jerky action moments, fans of Crank (also streaming on Peacock) will recognize something familiar about Neveldine and Taylor’s kinetic and violent movie world. Shot in a crazy-camera style that paces Crank’s action with a similar pulse-pounding energy, it’s unnerving and disorienting here, escalating the heartless dystopian stakes as Kable — who’s being controlled on the joystick end by a 17-year-old gaming wunderkind (played by Percy Jackson movie alum Logan Lerman) — forms a prison bond with a mysterious collective of freedom-hacking activists called the “Humanz.”

Hackman (Terry Crews) appears on a large screen as three people look up at him in the bottom right corner in Gamer (2009).

Led by a tech revolutionary played by Ludacris “Chris” Bridges (in a role not too far removed from his recurring computer-geek gig in the Fast & Furious franchise), the Humanz have a mole on the inside, planted in the prison system to aid Kable in hacking into the game’s seemingly-airtight security. With only one match left before winning his freedom outright, why would he want to do that? Because, as the Humanz inform him, the entire outcome is merely a scripted ruse: Castle has planted a free-acting human assassin named Hackman (played with feral menace by Terry Crews) inside Slayers for Kable’s final match, all but assuring that he won’t make it out alive… even if he does manage to win his freedom fair and square.

How the movie plays out from that point forward is too good to spoil, but the personal stakes for Kable are definitely high. He has a wife and daughter waiting for him on the outside, each trapped, in different ways, within the larger web of Castle’s near-omniscient tech panopticon. Played by model-turned actor Amber Valletta, Kable’s wife is an especially effective character in conveying to viewers the selfish and cynical societal ethos that Castle’s game-sensation creations tend to promote. To make ends meet, she works as a human character in Castle’s Society game, and the truly twisted things that she’s compelled to do (and to witness) at the hands of the slovenly, basement-dwelling sleazebag gamer who’s pulling her strings illustrate just how diminishing the pleasure returns can be in a hedonistic adult-fantasy world where almost any indulgence isn’t merely possible, but encouraged.

Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) speaks on a couch on a talk show in Gamer (2009).

Despite its poor performance among critics and at the box office, there’s something about Gamer that feels remarkably vital, fresh, and yep — even entertaining — today. Audiences in 2009 understandably lacked the prophetic foresight to recognize just how many aspects of our current tech-fueled pop culture Gamer would manage, from 15 years out, to absolutely nail. But Neveldine and Taylor, who created the concept and wrote the film’s story, were onto something big in the realm of ideas — a perk that no doubt contributed to the collectively massive buy-in required to land the modestly-budgeted movie’s talent-loaded cast.

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In addition to Butler, Hall, Crews, Bridges, and Valetta, Gamer also features Kyra Sedgwick (as an opportunistic TV talk show host), Matchstick Men standout Alison Lohman (as a member of the Humanz resistance), John Leguizamo (as a fellow inmate who confides in Kable), and Keith David (as a police detective who provides some of this super-serious movie’s welcome few moments of comic relief). It’s a huge, gifted ensemble, with each member making their precious screen seconds count, in the process lending a measure of grounding credibility to Gamer’s audacious-for-its-time premise.

The best science fiction movies entice you to think, and through a hellish hailstorm of bullets and blood, Gamer accomplishes the feat without ever taking its foot off the action gas. The finale fight that pits Castle against Kable is off-the-chain original for showing how geeky gurus can sometimes place an undue measure of faith in the tech toys they’ve created, and crowns a movie that’ll have you wondering just how far-fetched some of its biggest sci-fi ideas — given another 15 years’ worth of future “progress” — might actually turn out to be.

Press play and catch Gamer on Peacock, now streaming here.