Would humanity be better off if we all plugged into an artificial reality where our dreams, nightmares and fantasies can come true? In a strange way, both “Surrogates” and “Gamer” attempt to explore that question. With vague flashes of “Minority Report,” “The Matrix” and “I, Robot,” “Surrogates” plugs us into a bizarre world lived through robotic versions of ourselves, while “Gamer” answers the new-age-old question of what life would be like if we could live inside a video game vicariously, through actual people. Both films question our belief that fantasy would be better than reality, but which one does it more successfully?
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“Crank” directors Mark Neveldene and Brian Taylor aren’t the most subtle folks on the planet. Their directorial style is something most normal people could only experience through continued use of hard drugs. Which is why only they could make “Gamer” work. Convicted death row criminal John Tillman is a star of real-life third-person-shooter game “Slayers,” the invention of multi-zillionaire Ken Castle. “Slayers” takes real people, alters their brains so they can be controlled by gamers (much like you’d control a character on X-Box) and sends them out into real-world death-match scenarios. It’s a lot like “Doom,” “Halo” or “Crysis” brought to bloody, gore-filled life. Tillman, using the game alias Kable, is three successful missions from earning his freedom — freedom we know will elude him due to the corporate forces raging against him. When his “controller” gives him more autonomy than he’d otherwise access, Tillman goes on a rampage to find his family and to bring the domination of “Slayers” to an end.
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The Defending Champion
Opposing “Gamer” is futuristic fable “Surrogates,” a Bruce Willis starrer involving the use of robotic synthetic humans created to do all our dirty work for us. In the future, it seems, humanity is destined to become so lazy and emotionally adrift that we opt to live our lives through a kind of fantasy human, called “surrogates”. Being robots, they can be made to look better, work harder and faster, and be better people than humans could ultimately ever be. Or so we think. Cue a violent murder, a cop on the brink of what looks like a nervous breakdown, and a mysterious weapon that can shift the balance of power from the surrogates and their controllers to those who oppose the use of robots in society. “Surrogates” attempts to discern what, if anything, we stand to gain if we choose to live our lives plugged into a fantasy.
Anybody over the age of about thirty isn’t going to like “Gamer” at all. I mean, at all. Violent, graphic and bloody, with a tinge of narcissistic grandiosity, “Gamer” delivers the goods it promises on every level and then some. Neveldine/Taylor are to be commended for their unique style, which is like capturing a brain explosion and condensing it into visual imagery: their shot count per second must run into the triple digits. But it’s not for everyone. “Gamer” is stylish and slick, above anything else, and its story often becomes lost in what is, essentially, a video game on steroids. Lead actor (and perennial flavor of the month) Gerard Butler plays Tillman with the square-jawed vigor he did in “300,” sweat and blood flecking his skin and giving him that action-y “hardcore-ness” a film like “Gamer” is designed to deliver. Female co-star Amber Valletta sluts it up a little as Tillman’s wife, searching for her long-lost daughter and trying to keep her life together by appearing in “Slayers'” sister program, “Second Life” (where people plug in and control real people in a “Sim Family” sort of way) as a sexually promiscuous avatar. “Dexter” star Michael C. Hall delivers a great villain in Ken Castle whose plans for world domination end up being something out of a Saturday morning cartoon show.
In “Surrogates,” Bruce Willis delivers the same kind of tortured performance he gave us in “The Sixth Sense,” the doe-eyed, hard-bitten, emotionally shattered FBI agent, Tom Greer, on the trail of a mysterious killer. According to the plot, it has long been established that a fail-safe would protect the human link between a surrogate and its operator, so if something bad happened to the robot, the human controlling it would live. But at the time “Surrogates” opens, a weapon has been uncovered that threatens that belief, when surrogates and humans end up dead. Willis, together with his partner Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell) track down the source of this weapon to a group of anti-surrogate humans, living outside the city in a technology free zone called the Dreads. Based on the comic book of the same name, “Surrogates” has plenty of things to say about where technology and humanity are headed, and it’s not a pretty place. It also doesn’t say them very well.
Both films deal obscurely with the concept of humans plugging into a fantasy world to escape reality, and on this topic “Surrogates” does so better than “Gamer.” That doesn’t mean “Gamer” is the lesser film, it’s just that “Gamer” relies less on careful plotting and character development, and more on bodies, limbs and blood flying across the screen at almost every spare moment. In both films, things like character development are either missing altogether (“Gamer”) or so lackluster it’s hard to care (“Surrogates”). “Surrogates” director Jonathan Mostow, who gave us big spectacle films like “Terminator 3” and “U571” (and my personal favorite of his, “Breakdown”) tries to generate excitement with “Surrogates,” but both a poorly conceived script and a truly dreadful acting performance from Willis will leave the viewer cold. It’s a film devoid of any real substance, or at least feels that way in relation to the point it’s trying to make. “Gamer,” while devoid of sense and logic, at least entertains us, albeit with carnage and destruction. I’ll admit to enjoying the hell out of the “Crank” films, and I was trepidatious towards “Gamer” at first, fearing a rehash of “Cranks” style here. It is slightly a rehash, but the concept and ideas lend themselves more to this kind of film-making than even “Crank” did.
Production value on both films is exemplary, although “Surrogates” may have had the larger budget, I think the “Gamer” guys did so much better with less. Their set-pieces are certainly smaller in scope, but produced so well using digital and practical effects that you’d think they had billions to play with. “Surrogates” is a tighter ship to steer, a more Hollywood-ish veneer of perfection overlaid upon it, and this is probably what prevents us from getting “into” the film so much. While “Gamer’s” indie-film ethos and guerrilla styling allow more freedom to express the ideas required, “Surrogates” is committee-film-making of the most astounding order. The script feels shorn of anything resembling articulate moral and ethical statements aside from the bleeding obvious, and any viewer wanting a deeper exploration of humanity’s breathless wanting of the kind of “plug and play” fantasy life will be left, well, breathlessly wanting.
In terms of overall spectacle, you’d be hard pressed to go past “Gamer” for delivering what it says on the box. “Surrogates,” while bigger in budget and with a lot more story development to pull from, fails utterly to capture the imagination due to its aloof characters and Willis’ lack of charisma. Quiet Bruce isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as Loud Bruce, the Bruce Willis we met in “Die Hard.” Quiet Bruce is beginning to wear thin, and unless this trend changes soon, audiences will flock elsewhere. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Gerard Butler knows what an audience is looking for, and gives it to us in spades. He’s the new action hero of our time, alongside Jason Statham and Tony Ja. So, for the complete package, no matter how bloody, I’d recommend “Gamer” over “Surrogates” any day.