Andy Bockelman: Virtual reality never looked so horrible

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Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

"Gamer"

1.5 out of stars

95 minutes

Starring: Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges.

If every time you lost a game of "Pac Man," a real-life yellow circle died elsewhere in the world, would you feel guilty or just keep inserting quarters?

Sure, you may have extra lives at your disposal, but the tortured souls of "Gamer" don't have that luxury programmed into their systems.

War isn't exactly a necessity of the world in 2034. It's an addiction, a guilty pleasure for the masses. But it's all watched from the safety of people's own homes, thanks to the interactive video game "Slayers," created by multimedia mogul Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall).

The participants are death row inmates faced with the choice of fulfilling their sentence or risking their lives in a combat zone for the chance at freedom. No one has ever survived the requisite 30 sessions, but game favorite Kable (Gerard Butler) is only a few victories away from release. The real star is the player who controls Kable, 17-year-old Simon (Logan Lerman), who barely thinks about the hell his avatar has experienced.

All that sustains Kable - ne John Tillman - is the thought of seeing his wife (Amber Valletta) and daughter (Brighid Fleming). But each gaming session becomes more and more hazardous, leaving Kable wary, and only by disconnecting from Simon's control will he be able to find the truth.

Butler's savagery from "300" doesn't do a lot of good here, as Kable is by nature a gentle soul, who of course, wasn't guilty of the murder which got him sent to prison. Still, he goes through the appropriate number of frustrated grunts and anguished looks to convince us that he's a tough, tormented fighter who pines for his family.

You know, basically a carbon copy of the kind of character Mel Gibson played over and over again in the 1980s and '90s.

But there's such a thing as being too expressive, as evidenced by Hall in a drastically different role from the titular hero of "Dexter." Megalomaniacal Castle - Bill Gates with a better haircut and a God complex - is eccentric enough with his evil little giggles, but his sinister rendition of Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" gives a whole new meaning to "Chairman of the Board."

Lerman is far too much of a little snot to like as Simon, who spends his days fending off cyber groupies and eating PB&Js - that's pistachio butter and jelly sandwiches.

Chris "Ludacris" Bridges" is the most believable here as an underground viral rebel who keeps hacking into the "Slayers" system to spread his anti-Castle propaganda, helped along by Kyra Sedgwick as an investigating talk show host who doesn't trust Castle's motives.

Don't even get started on Valletta as Tillman's wife, Angie, whose single parent financial position forces her to prostitute herself in Castle's other creation: "Society," a takeoff of "The Sims" that functions as a 24/7 bacchanal.

The twisted manipulative properties of "Slayers" and "Society" of "some years from this exact moment" are only a few steps away from today's "Halo" or "Second Life." This is obvious enough, but the movie's story focuses more on playing around with this pervasive nature than on trying to say much about it and at times, even glorifies it.

The spirit of satire is meant to offend and enlighten, but the former has to go hand in hand with the latter for it to work as a piece of social commentary. There's no subtlety in the characters or the subject matter, at least not enough for either to be taken seriously as anything more than a run-of-the-mill action movie.

And it's still below average on that scale, too.

The extensive, unpleasant visual effects bear great similarity to Richard Kelly's huge, star-studded flop, "Southland Tales." At least Kelly had the courage to make a film that people might not like.

Writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor - creators of the "Crank" movies - try too many times to take the easy way out rather than make a cohesive point about the desensitization and apathy of contemporary society.

The high horse approach to "Gamer" is what makes it so unbearable. Mindless violence is one thing, but don't try to convince us it's anything more.

Game off.

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