‘Gamer,’ ‘Surrogates,’ ‘Avatar’ and the meaning of (second) life

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In the old days, Hollywood tried to make thrillers that got under your skin -- today it’s more about films that get you out of your skin.

In a sign of the times, this Friday the blood-splattered ‘Gamer’ begins a wave of sci-fi films that take the concepts of second life and video games into dark corners of the digital age. ‘Gamer’ presents a world where modern flesh-and-blood gladiators (among them Gerard Butler of ‘300’ fame) and sex slaves are controlled by a paying public sitting in front of computer screens in the leering privacy of their own homes.

On Sept. 25, ‘Surrogates,’ starring Bruce Willis, presents a different spin -- a society where everyone essentially stays home but can live (and, it turns out, be killed) via the glamorous robot versions of themselves that create a mechanized second life. In December, director James Cameron takes the out-of-body experience off planet with ‘Avatar,’ where lives are lost (and unexpected love found) when humans place their consciousnesses inside the giant blue bodies of alien hybrids on a planet with the oh-so-revealing name of Pandora.

There are other variations of plug-in tales coming. Next year’s ‘Tron Legacy’ from Disney takes the download-your-mind dream back to an old-school brand name, and then there’s ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,’ a zany Edgar Wright project that presents Michael Cera in combat with his girlfriend’s past lovers while the film keeps score of his gaming-like odyssey. Then there’s Christopher Nolan’sInception,’ with star Leonardo DiCaprio; the plot is a closely guarded secret at this point but in a perception-bending teaser trailer there’s an intriguing tagline that states ‘your mind is the scene of the crime,’ suggesting that the director of ‘The Dark Knight’ is treading beyond our reality.

The visions are wildly different but all of the movies speak to the slippery nature of humanity in an era where millions and millions of people ‘live’ an alternative existence in Second Life, build their own worlds in Sims or swing swords at strangers in World of Warcraft.

‘One life isn’t enough for anyone anymore,’ said Mark Neveldine, who co-directed ‘Gamer’ with Brian Taylor. ‘Part of it is people get heavily isolated today and then they also greedy, they want more than the life they have and what it can offer.’

Taylor and Neveldine, the same tandem behind ‘Crank,’ said they wanted to make a throwback sci-fi film that is high-energy but also laced with social commentary and, like some mash-up between ‘Natural Born Killers’ and Sims, presents lurid bombast and of-the-moment digital-life textures. Butler portrays a death-row inmate who joins a combat game called Slayer that promises a chance of freedom for prisoners who let their brains be rewired to make them controllable characters in a real-life blood sport. (If some of that plot sounds familiar, the directors are aware of it; they noted that that there’s a fleeting homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger and ‘The Running Man’ if viewers keep their eyes open.)

‘Gamer’ has Michael C. Hall (of ‘Dexter’ and ‘Six Feet Under’ fame, shown at right with Butler) as the real bad guy, the architect of Slayer and a sexed-up counterpart game called Society. Taylor said the media mogul was imagined as a cross between Bill Gates, Mark Cuban and University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer, of all people, but with a Dixie accent.'A disarming Southern gentleman,’ as Taylor put it.


The film ‘Surrogates’ has been trying to catch the eye of moviegoers with the billboard campaign of robots flashing come-hither looks. Director Jonathan Mostow, whose last film was 2003’s ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,’ said the flirtation with technology has been going on for years and that modern life is at the mercy of the wonderful machines we create.

‘We’re all essentially addicted to our e-mail, Blackberries, Facebook and Twitter,’ Mostow said. ‘I’m not saying technology is evil, believe me, it’s great. I’m a major techno addict, I’m a first adopter, I get everything that’s new as quick as I can.’

The allure of technology is the framing tale in ‘Surrogates,’ based on the Top Shelf comic-book series by writer Robert Venditti and artist Brett Weldele, which presents a world where safety is assured because instead of leaving home, people merely dispatch a better-looking robot version of themselves. That arm’s-length approach to life changes, though, when murder is reintroduced to society and an FBI agent, played by Willis, finds that he will actually have to venture back out into the real world.

Mostow said Willis and the actor’s ‘believability and credibility’ give the detective tale a centered realism. ‘And you need that in stories such as this one.’

That noir sensibility of ‘Surrogates’ is far removed from the tales coming in later seasons from the directors of the two highest-grossing films in American box office history. ‘Titanic’ director Cameron has compared his ‘Avatar,’ which stars Sam Worthington, to familiar clash-of-culture tales such as ‘Dances With Wolves’ and ‘At Play in the Fields of the Lord’ while Nolan’s ‘Inception,’ due in July 2010, seems to be channeling a stylish, less-techy version of ‘The Matrix.

And after that? Mostow said to expect more films where humans face the ghosts in the machine and search for a human pulse amid the pixels. ‘The storytellers are telling tales about things happening in society and these are the things we’re all worried about ... I think it’s all in reference to this generalized anxiety about technology and its role in our lives.’

-- Geoff Boucher


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Next for Nolan: A Bat-film due in 2011?

‘Gamer’ images courtesy of Lionsgate