Gamer (Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor, 2009)

Not long into Gamer, there’s a moment in which a group of men on roller-skates have a water pistol fight. It begins as a canted medium shot, with one player framed from the waist-up, pushed into the left corner of the frame:

The right is filled with a large chunk of negative space; the sky a sickly, over-saturated electric blue. The player twists left as the camera rotates right, both at super-speed. As this happens, the man’s torso comes to take up the entire screen, leaving us temporarily in an abstract non-space – combined with the Pollockian squiggles of water and the motion of a paint stroke-like scarf, it creates an effect akin to a Brakhage abstraction:

The camera then moves to a sort-of reverse angle, with the characters now captured from the knee upwards and the most prominent figure’s head partially concealed by a huge lens flare:

Again, the composition is full of negative space, with the actors being pushed into the lower half of the screen. As they skate, the insanely garish colours of their clothes are hurled violently across the screen. This scene (which, by the way, plays out in a single shot that lasts a few seconds), encapsulates the hyper-active artistic sensibility of Neveldine/Taylor.

The duo’s action sequences are defined by their weightlessness and tendency to slip in and out of varying levels of abstraction; they’re spatially vague and full of bizarre cutaways. In their eyes, a gunfight seems to be, first and foremost, an opportunity to put together striking arrangements of blood splatters, shattered glass and bodies in motion – most of the time, the sequences are spatially vague by design. They don’t really build scenes in the traditional sense, they’re more interested in piling up spectacles, each one brash, disorientating and calibrated for maximum sensory impact.

In their first three films, Neveldine/Taylor take a heap of elements from (ostensibly) the lowest forms of contemporary visual art – advertisements, first-person shooters, shitty music videos, internet porn, prank videos, Saturday morning cartoons, hyper-continuity spectacle cinema – and transform them into a gonzo, Pynchon-esque landscape. Like kindred spirit Paul Verhoeven, Neveldine/Taylor poke at the sickness of American mass entertainment not by subverting its pleasures but by dialling them up to an absurd level; as a result, the noxious undertones usually hidden by a veil of respectability explode to the surface. The audience’s collective desire for constant stimulation and immediate gratification is reflected back on them, as in a de-sanitizing, grotesque fun-house mirror. Their willingness to playfully relish in the subject they mean to deconstruct allows for a more incisive critique.

Watching one of their films feels like the cinematic equivalent of a particularly caffeinated internet browsing session – the camera is in constant motion, shots rarely last more than a few seconds, jump cuts abound, the action is mostly stitched together using mismatched angles, frame rates and picture quality fluctuate unexpectedly, and the tone can switch jarringly from minute to minute. This adds up to a contemplation of the ways in which digitization has altered how we interact with images – when shot digitally, images are made flexible and immaterial, able to float around the frictionless realm of hyper-space, where they can be endlessly manipulated, re-contextualized and re-purposed.

While the Crank movies established Neveldine/Taylor’s worldview of post-industrial life as a perpetual videogame, Gamer is the most coherent and sophisticated expression of their thematic preoccupations. Gamer takes place in a not-too-distant future in which real people have chips planted in their heads to turn them into avatars for video games, highlights from which are then broadcast on national TV. These games – The Sims-like Society and the multi-combat Slayers – are essentially based on the intersection between reality shows and online role player games, the grotesque extension of our collective desire to live vicariously through others. The film sets up three main characters, each of whom is granted more or less equal weight in the narrative: Kable, a death row inmate unwittingly turned avatar; Simon, his teenage controller; and Castle, the faux-casual, neo-libertarian multi-millionaire creator of the games. Together, they form a pretty accurate microcosm of the late capitalist economy, setting up a structure whereby physical labour is delegated to a relatively small, mistreated lower class; a middle class that deals solely with abstract information that draws on the work of the working class while still keeping them fundamentally alienated from them; and a 1% who hog a ridiculous amount of power and wealth. In this sense, Simon’s inability to see the act of playing Slayers as one that carries moral weight is a more extreme extension of, say, choosing a slightly cheaper brand without considering the circumstances surrounding its production. His casual callousness is a product of amorality more than anything else.

Pointedly, these characters don’t occupy the same physical location until the very end of the movie. Instead, they interact through various embedded levels of media, which Neveldine/Taylor express through cleanly dividing the characters across visual planes. The respective power of each character is largely expressed through the amount of surveillant power they hold: Kable, occupying the lowest rung, is watched but cannot return the gaze; Simon can watch Kable, but is himself monitored by Castle, and the FBI when it benefits them (they can also access his online history and current whereabouts); Castle has the means to watch without the fear of anybody watching him in return.

In Gamer, information is the most valuable commodity, and the ability to obtain information is linked to the control of capital and surveillance technology. Simon and Kable are kept in states of structural alienation, unable to alter their respective states of being exploited because they’re unable to understand exactly how they’re being exploited. Simon has the ability to manipulate information, unlike Kable, but he can’t create it, as Castle can, which determines both the degree of power he holds and the fragility of his social position. In this sense, the games work as a satirical stand-in for any type of interactive, corporatized form of new media – designed to make the consumer feel that their desire for control is being gratified, they instead exploit this desire for the benefit of a selected few. Simon may think he has a great degree of control, but he’s merely manipulating service platforms, his capacity for original and inventive thinking in fact being restricted by the channels he has to engage with in order to play. And as soon as he’s perceived as an obstacle by the state, they effortlessly weed him out and dispose of him.

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Kable can only gain some degree of power once he’s escaped the gaze of the omnipresent media eye (represented very explicitly by the sight of him shooting a camera) but – in this hyper-mediated network society – this can only happen temporarily, and he has to keep moving and he has to strip himself of networked technology. The majority of the Humanz team with which he’s affiliated make the mistake of staying in one place and using computers that allow for them to be easily tracked. They are thus soon located and executed by Castle’s men, whose actions are relayed on a video screen. Any hope to retreat from this network can, by nature, only be brief, the all-consuming forces of the spectacle society soon come to intrude.

The only way that Kable and Simon are able to defeat Castle is by temporarily hijacking his surveillance technology. The two remaining Humanz affiliates manage to hack into Castle’s system, briefly allowing for Simon to take control of Kable and, for the first time, turning the gaze against him.

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It’s probably the only moment of optimism you’ll find in a Neveldine/Taylor movie, and it comes from a brief glitch; not so much an overturning of toxic social structures as a reminder of the fleeting punches the powerless can throw at it. Late period cyber-capitalism has become too overwhelmingly powerful to even hope to destroy, the best we can do is hurl spitballs at it, pointing out it’s flaws and mocking the language it uses to perpetuate itself – much like Gamer itself does.