Friday 12 August 2011


In 1992 Neil Esterbrook wrote “cyberpunk is dead,” stating that most cyberpunk authors had moved back into mainstream science fiction.  Cyberpunk exists as a subgenre of science fiction literature, a subversive exploration of a ruling technocratic corporate culture.  Indulging in both a fascination with, and fear of technology, cyberpunk often blurs the lines between what is natural and what is completely artificial, sometimes even reversing the two.

Cyberpunk was born in the 1980s and offered a glimpse into the not-too-distant future.  Building on then-current technologies, the subgenre followed their development and applications to one possible, horrific conclusion: that technological enrichment does not equal societal enlightenment.  Although grounded in tech, cyberpunk dealt with changes to human consciousness and behaviour—changes brought about by technological advancement.

As a film subgenre, again couched within sci-fi, cyberpunk is less strict in its temporal element, as some “cyberpunk” films are set in the present.  As a result, cyberpunk movies aren’t necessarily steeped in the technological and amoral decadence that characterizes the books.  But there is still a subversive undercurrent to the proceedings, and some commentary on the nature of technology, humanity, and society.

Bruce Bethke, father of cyberpunk, makes it clear that he did not invent the subgenre’s tropes—that was largely the work of William Gibson.  What Bethke did create was both the word, cyberpunk, and the type: “a young, technologically facile, ethically vacuous, computer-adept vandal or criminal.”  As Bethke’s creation took on a life of its own, cyberpunks morphed into anti-heroes, rebelling against a corrupt corporate ruling class.  In the books and films that came after Bethke and Gibson, cyberpunk grew into a subculture with its own aesthetics and guiding principles.

Bethke's original cyberpunks were influenced partly by the punk music scene, and partly by group of computer-literate teens he had run-in with in 1980 (artist: Bob Walters).

 In film, cyberpunk has five main themes:

-technology’s negative impact on humanity
-the fusion of man and machine
-corporate control over society
-subversive underground movements and revolutions
-the ubiquitous access to information

If any of these themes are missing from a film, it cannot, in all fairness, be considered cyberpunk.  Conversely, the film Hackers is devoutly cyberpunk because it embraces, for the most part, Bethke’s original idea: punk kids whose technological prowess allows them to undermine authority and acquire a certain amount of power.

Gamer comes very close to being cyberpunk, falling just short of the mark, and the film’s failure to be cyberpunk is the main reason why it doesn’t succeed.  In the world of Gamer, Ken Castle has cornered the entertainment market.  His pioneering nanotechnology—self-replicating nanites that take over the brain—has allowed him to create two very different but equally successful live-action “games”.  Society is a simulation, much like Second Life, in which players remotely control real people, and end up indulge in all manner of debauchery.  Slayers is a first person shooter in which convicted felons are remotely controlled by a gamer and must survive a series of urban warfare scenarios.  After thirty successful games (success is measured by not dying), a felon’s conviction is expunged and he is set free.

Kable and his gamer, the teenaged Simon, have won 27 games.  They will be the first ever Slayers champions.  It’s a big deal, for both Castle and Kable, but Castle is working against Kable, trying to sabotage the game.  For personal reasons, Castle cannot let Kable walk free.  A secretive and mysterious group of people, who call themselves Humanz, contact Simon and Kable, providing them with hacks and assistance to undermine Castle’s cheating, with the ultimate goal of overriding Castle’s proprietary body-and-mind-controlling nanotechnology.

As a would-be cyberpunk movie, Gamer appears to address the subgenre’s five themes with a particular sensitivity for current trends in popular culture and technological innovation.  But Gamer isn’t cyberpunk, and it should have been.

The negative impact of technology on humanity

Not pictured: lifeless human shells devoid of agency. Pictured: boobs.

The only technology featured in Gamer is one which assumes control of a person’s neurocortex, robbing them of their free will.  The characters in Society and Slayers are nothing more than avatars to be controlled at a distance.  It might even be appropriate to suggest they’re robots of a sort, programmed by and with the will of the controller.  Castle’s endgame is to be able to control everyone, everywhere with his tech.

By adopting a gaming conceit, Gamer is able to mine gaming culture for a horrific, logical outcome of developments in videogame culture and technology.  Gamer suggests that videogames will supplant reality, blending one person’s gaming with another person’s being.  In Society and Slayers, the subject/object opposition of the gamer/avatar dissolves and the two become one.  Identity is undermined by the anonymous nature of Society, and the gamers and players in Slayers share one consciousness as both are play-fighting for survival.

The fusion of man and machine

I have a soft spot of Johnny Mnemonic.

The man/machine theme lies in Castle’s nanites.  No other tech is featured in the movie, and world of the film is distinctly contemporary.  Nanites are microscopic robots that are able to replicate themselves.  They are injected into a human subject and replace that person’s brain cells.  The fusion exists out of sight of the audience, but its effect is that it turns people into avatars, empty shells for others to control.  The tech has no agency of its own, of course, but then neither does the person once his nanites are activated.

Gamer fails to truly embrace the organic/inorganic reversal so important to cyberpunk because the avatars, or players, are always under the control of a person.  The nanites cannot be removed from the host—the person would die—but they can be overridden.  Although the complete fusion of man and machine is present in Gamer, it happens out of sight of the audience.  This aspect of the story could be an interesting point, but the theme is undercut by a virus that allows the host to regain control of his body.

The issue of identity is only ever addressed through the character of Angie, Kable’s wife.  In order to make ends meet, she works as an avatar in Society and is, unsurprisingly, controlled by a fat shut-in.  Outside of Society, Angie is treated like a second-class citizen, suggesting that people who willingly choose to give their bodies over to the tech are lesser beings.  Rather than revelling in technophilia, Gamer disdains its technology and pushes an agenda of organic purity.

Corporate control of society

The man can't be trusted. Just look at his shoes.

Truly this is where Gamer beings to shed its cyberpunk skin.  While it would appear that media conglomerates and Castle’s company exhibit a certain amount of control over society, there is no single, unified front lording over the world.

Cyberpunk’s political theory states that technology drastically changes the distribution of power.  The owners of the tech are the ones in power, and will struggle against the adept users who do not wish to be ruled by and through technology.  Current technological innovation and development is spearheaded by corporations and companies that specialize in research and design.  Governments are incapable of competing with large corporations, and financial crisis leads to corporate takeover of governmental institutions.

There is nothing to suggest this happened in the world of Gamer.  Rather, the film presents a world much like our own in which one person can achieve great fame and power through his contribution to society.  Granted, Castle owns a huge market share in the gaming and entertainment sector, and has struck a deal with the department of corrections, but he is a man, not a megacorp, and there is nothing in the film to suggest that he is directing society.

Castle’s ambition cannot replace the subgenre’s trope.

Arnie survives the shit out of The Running Man, representing man's fight against tyranny and oppression.  Gerard Butler walks away from his figurative battle in Slayers to punch Michael C. Hall in the face, which represents man's distaste for dance breaks.

The Running Man is perhaps the movie that bears the closest resemblance to Gamer.  In it, prisoners are run through a gauntlet with the promise of freedom should they survive.  Set in 2019, the world is fixated on The Running Man game show and a live feed is broadcast all over the country on public televisions.  The show encourages and reinforces the populace’s belief in freedom even though they are under the thumb of a totalitarian regime.  The show acts as a pacifier and an outlet for society, but unbeknownst to its audience, is one hundred percent fixed and its champions are all dead, killed by the network.

Slayers is like The Running Man in that it is wildly popular, but the circumstances surrounding the two shows are very different.  Whereas The Running Man is set after America’s financial collapse, Gamer’s social, cultural, and political milieux are largely unknown.  Slayers exists only as a form of entertainment, and while it does serve as a kind of social commentary, there is no depth to its argument.

Subversive underground movements and revolutions

Vintage arcade games. Get it?!?

Gamer’s revolutionaries are woefully underwritten, and this only further removes the film from its cyberpunk pretentions.  We learn very little about these people, and their impact on the story happens late in the film.

The Humanz group is actively trying to subvert Castle by creating a virus that will crash the nanites and free the avatar.  Humanz understand the danger Castle poses to society, and their pre-emptive strike against him prevent him from taking over the world, thereby subverting one of cyberpunk’s main themes (see above).

Humanz supply Simon with a hack that will allow him to speak with Kable—communication is not permitted between gamer and gamee.  The hack forces Simon to relate to Kable as a person and not just a character, and though Kable is still under Simon’s control, he is able to reclaim a certain amount of agency.  If Gamer were a better written film, if its writers were able to fully understand and exploit this turn of events, Simon, Kable, and Humanz could continue subvert to Castle’s tech, methodically “freeing” the avatars while the film comments on the nature of identity and agency.

Instead, Gamer eschews subtlety in favour of bland action.  Before the final battle, Simon relinquishes all control over Kable and he leaves the battlefield.  Kable, now in full control of himself confronts Castle, cutting Simon entirely from the story.  And it doesn’t even mater that Simon is so easily dismissed—he has nothing invested in exposing or defeating Castle.  Simon, due to his complete lack of characterization, has as little life as any of Castle’s avatars.  This too, could be an interesting point, but the film isn’t smart enough to understand it.

Ubiquitous access to information

Ubiquitous access to loud prints.

It is only through Simon that we, the audience, are aware of the state of the World Wide Web.  Simon spends most of his screentime in his room, surrounded on all sides by the Inertnet.  He is completely immersed in the online world, and being a gaming superstar, is constantly barraged by fan mail.  At one point, Simon’s Internet access is suspended, but he’s back online in a matter of minutes.

Although Simon, and by extension everyone else in the world, would appear to have unlimited access to information, there seems to be no government censorship or control over that information.  And there is no need for control because the government has no terrifying secrets about how evil they are (see 2.3).  Only Castle carefully guards a secret that would destroy him, but that particular bit of information resides within Cable—no one else is privy to that information.

Information, for the most part, is of little consequence in Gamer.  It neither helps nor hinders the characters in the film.  Nanite technology is well-known; there is no larger conspiracy that needs exposing, save for Castle’s master plan, and Humanz is incapable of convincing anyone that Castle is evil.  Castle himself is the cause of his defeat, due to a logic flaw in the story.

Gamer is supposed to be a movie about identity, individuality, agency, and consciousness.  It’s supposed to tell its technological horror story using cyberpunk conventions, detailing a future in which nanotechnology presents an unseen but tangible threat to society.  But by failing to conform to the subgenre’s principles, Gamer is incapable of commenting on the ways in which technology influences culture.

The world of Gamer is indeed one without meaning, affectation, or communal bonds, and this artifice is exemplified by the decadent unreality of Society and the cold detachment of Slayers, but there is no story of human experience set against this bleak landscape.  Gamer fails to wed humanity with technology, and instead pits them against each other.  The tragedy is that Gamer should be cyberpunk, but its shortcomings in terms of character development, and its short-sightedness with regards to story prevent it from realising its potential.

Badass 'splosions? Check. A thoughtful exploration of the human condition using robotic mind-controlling technology? Not so much.

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