The last year of COVID lockdowns left us all with little to do, but so much to discover. The 1995 Keanu Reeves movie Johnny Mnemonic recently went viral on Twitter after users noticed its spot-on depictions of online information warfare and a deadly epidemic made worse by selfish megacorporations. Alien and The Thing had similar second lives early in the pandemic, thanks to their accurate portrayals of the perils of loosely implemented quarantine measures. For me, spending a large chunk of my time looking at mindless mid-2000s action movies while also surveying the best of what the internet has to offer, that revelatory reevaluation came from the 2009 Gerard Butler film Gamer.
Gamer is not what one would consider a traditionally good movie. A box-office bomb panned by critics upon release, the film currently sits at 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience score of only 39%. In fact, I could only find one other formal defense of the movie: professor and philosopher Steven Shaviro’s 10,000-word treatise written shortly after Gamer came and went from theaters. Shaviro eventually makes a key point: The makers of this movie were on to something.
In 2021, that something is clearer. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor bring the frenetic energy of their Jason Statham action movie Crank to Gamer without any of the camp. It’s a splatterpunk mess of a film that, perhaps more so than any other movie of its time, manages to capture the unceasing nightmare of today. The same movie in which Gerard Butler infamously pees and vomits into a car’s gas tank is also a scathing indictment of capitalism and a shockingly on-point prediction of how, left unchecked, corporate monopolies will use the internet to take away our bodily autonomy.
In Gamer, a brain implant called a Nanex allows people to remotely access other people’s brains. This technology powers two real-world “video games,” including Slayers, a Fortnite-esque experience where death-row inmates are controlled remotely as they fight to the death in various warehouses on livestreams. If they survive 30 games, they’re set free. When the movie starts, no player has managed to do it yet. Still, Slayers’ players controlling the inmates are massive celebrities, similar to today’s Twitch streamers. Logan Lerman plays Simon, the Ninja-like influencer who controls Butler’s character, John “Kable” Tillman.
The more interesting game within Gamer is Society. It’s a real-life version of The Sims, where flesh-and-blood players are made to dance and drink and have sex with each other inside a theme park of nightclubs and hotel rooms. The whole thing looks like a Clockwork Orange version of VidCon combined with the torture dungeon from Saw. Society players are all depicted as isolated sadists, tormenting their human avatars from dark, lonely rooms.
Looking through the negative reviews of Gamer, many critics had issues with the technology in the film. The “internet controls you” premise was still relatively new in 2009, and frankly, it still seemed a little far-fetched. But technology has quickly caught up with Neveldine and Taylor’s vision for the future. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on an app called NewNew, which creates a “human stock market,” and allows fans to control influencers’ actions via in-app polls. There is already an entire genre of livestreaming called “life streaming,” where influencers strap satellite packs on their backs and walk the streets, getting in fights and harassing people as their chat rooms egg them on. Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup said it plans to start testing its brain interface technology this year. Meanwhile, Facebook finally released details this month about its augmented reality hardware, a wristband-and-glasses combo that will function via hand gestures. We’ll be playing Pokémon Go via brain implant sometime in the next couple of decades.
The other main issue most people seemed to have had with Gamer back in 2009 is that it’s extremely graphic. I’m not sure it’s as exploitative as it seems. Over the last 20 years, a slew of movies have attempted to accurately depict the internet. Most of them failed. The online world and the Motion Picture Association-approved world of movies and TV are very different. The internet is inherently vulgar. It also exists in a constant state of both serious and not serious at the same time. Online, a frog meme can become a global hate symbol. Hollywood films have trouble depicting that. Anyone else remember Swimfan or FearDotCom? It’s hard for a character to turn to another one and say, “This is SonicFeetFan69 — he went viral for boiling a Joker action figure in piss, and now he’s running for Congress.”
Gamer doesn’t make any attempt to lampshade this duality — and boy, is it jarring! Slayers characters robotically teabag each other mid-game, and Society cast members mindlessly walk around in circles for hours. But the human beings that are made to do these things are suffering, and the movie doesn’t shy away from showing that.
One of the more inspired ideas in the film is the character Ken Castle, the creator of Slayers and Society. Played by Michael C. Hall — who is having the time of his life — Ken looks like Jack Dorsey and sounds like David Duke. In 2009, the idea of a Silicon Valley tech founder that spoke like a Republican good ol’ boy felt off-putting and weird. In 2021, not so much. Watching the movie now, he feels like the perfect, terrifying blend of Alex Jones and Mark Zuckerberg.
In fact, the movie is littered with little details that felt overblown a decade ago, but today, hew uncomfortably close to reality. The news media in the world of Gamer is depicted as just a collection of various right-wing YouTube drama channels. The hosts look like OAN anchors and talk like KeemStar, smoking cigarettes on air and screaming expletives. And according to the bug in the corner of the screen, they’re all owned by one media conglomerate, TelNet. Hitting very close to home in 2021, the film makes two very clear references to Castle’s Nanex technology being used to rig an election.
During an interview at the top of the film, Castle tells Kyra Sedgwick’s Gina Parker Smith, a Nancy Grace stand-in, “I’d remind your audience that Slayers was put together with the full cooperation and approval of the United States federal government; that the revenue it produces is responsible for funding our entire prison system, keeping the bad guys behind bars; and that the prop was voted for by a cock-solid 68% of the American public —”
“— in an election tainted by suspected digital fraud,” Parker Smith says, interrupting Castle.
And then, again, at the end of the film, Castle reveals that his grand plan is to use Nanex tech to take control of the government. “One hundred million people could buy what I wanted to buy and vote how I wanted to vote,” he says to Kable.
Gamer’s political incorrectness seems just as deliberate as its violence and sexual content. Simon, the streamer that controls Kable, spends his entire day in his room, which looks kind of like a Star Trek holodeck plastered with edgy MySpace profiles. He’s one of the biggest celebrities on the planet because of how well he plays Slayers. And, even though he’s a death-row inmate, Kable’s success in the game has led to his own fame, as well. His face and name are on holographic advertisements all over the world. In one scene, a pair of female Slayers players named the KumDumpsterz offer to buy Kable from Simon. The game has turned Simon and Kable into superstars.
Meanwhile, Kable’s wife, Angie “Nika” Roth Tillman, is a “cast member” of Society. Played by Amber Valletta, she lets people remotely control her in exchange for a meager salary. Society players are regarded as the lowest form of entertainment, a mix of a reality TV cast member, OnlyFans microinfluencer, and Hype House member. In one scene, Nika is laughed out of a child services office as she tries to apply for custody of her daughter, told that working inside of Society isn’t a real job. In the third act of the movie, Kable saves her from being assaulted by another player named Rick Rape. It’s explained that Rick has been banned from Society several times for attacking other players, and yet, he keeps coming back.
It’s also easy to write off Kable’s main storyline as a stock action-movie motivation — a wrongly convicted army man fights to be reunited with his wife. (Sorry, no movie can do this better than Con Air.) But there’s more happening here than meets the eye. Kable is incarcerated for murder because he was an early Nanex trial subject. To cover up Castle’s unethical human testing, Kable is imprisoned and then made to fight to the death. When he starts to get too good at Slayers and comes close to escaping, Castle hires Terry Crews’ character, Hackman, to infiltrate the game and kill Kable.
In Gamer, a tech monopoly has worked with the U.S. government to turn its platform into a literal prison where you compete for attention and survival. And if you get too good at the game? If you hit the jackpot in the casino too many times? They intervene. It’s not that different from Facebook changing its algorithm, from YouTube shadowbanning you, or from Robinhood freezing trading at the height of the GameStop pump.
Gamer isn’t perfect. The satire isn’t coherent enough to really nail what it’s trying to do, and the movie can’t escape some typical “Hollywood movie about capitalism” pitfalls. The portrayal of the hacktivist group Humanz is extremely cringe. Led by Ludacris’ character, Brother, the group helps Kable escape from Slayers and rescue Nika. It’s a pretty lazy riff on Anonymous, and probably the part of the movie that has aged the worst. But it serves an important point: The Humanz activists are all killed in the third act by mercenaries working for Castle. The Nanex system has become big enough to crush any collective action against it.
Though it has a happy ending for its main character, Gamer isn’t exactly a hopeful movie.
The climax of the film is an incredibly surreal dance sequence. Castle, having kidnapped Nika, performs a tap number while he remotely controls a group of prisoners, who all dance alongside him. The tech CEO as a puppet master, the final node in an automated military-to-prison-to-death-game spectator sport for the rich.
Kable ultimately kills Castle, after tricking the CEO into admitting on a livestream his plan to enslave the planet. But there’s no indication at the end of the movie that Slayers or Society stops after Castle dies. There’s not even really a scene showing much public outrage. Instead, Kable, Nika, and their daughter drive off into the countryside, leaving the digital realm behind.
Gamer posits a world where the thrill of online violence and exploitation is too addictive to dismantle. Though Kable and his family escape, the network continues onward. It’s implied that even Castle’s company will move forward without him. The system has become too big now, too important. The individual can try to leave it, and may succeed, but it has sealed the majority of the world inside of it.
It’s a lot to hang on a Gerard Butler movie. But three months ago, we watched thousands of Americans livestream themselves storming the Capitol building. It’s beginning to feel like the only thing Gamer really got wrong is the idea that people would need to be remotely controlled to want to fight each other on a livestream.