The Movie Gamer as Modern Fairy Tale

I recently watched Gamer (2009) on Netflix. The story isn’t deep but I dug it. Overall, I felt like it achieved what it set out to do, which wasn’t too much. I’ve only seen this one movie by Neveldine and Taylor. They are known for their frenetic style that glories in campy gore and plenty of T&A. This movie has enough of that to be considered an exploitation flick, though it felt a too earnest to me to qualify.

The next morning I looked up the reviews (both popular and professional). Wow, people HATED this thing! Like vehemently. The high-brow reviewers* spared no vitriol on Gamer, and though the hoi polloi that review on Amazon and Netflix showed a little wider spread, they were still primarily negative. Reviewers complained the movie is too short,** that the story is derivative and that the characters are stock (despite the fact that they are played well by good actors). I take exception to the first complaint, but not the others. Yet the fact that this felt like a twice told tale did not bother me at all. And that’s what got me thinking. Why didn’t this story feel like a cop out to me?

For me, Gamer is a modern fairy tale.

Fairy tales are familiar, they have stock characters and recycled story lines. So much so that academics have made careers out of categorizing common story elements that appear in fairy and folk tales from across cultures.

When people throw around a term like “modern fairy tale” they usually mean an updated version of a classic fairy tale like Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Tangled, or currently, Mirror Mirror, which keep the classic tropes, like evil step-moms, enchanted beasts, and a dangerous wood. The storyline and characters are then updated to reflect today’s views. This isn’t exactly what I mean my a modern fairy tale.

Because fairy tales have been bowdlerized for children for so long, we tend to think of them as uplifting stories of empowerment. A “fairy tale ending” is a happy one. Originally, fairy tales were much more akin to what we now think of as horror stories, and a traditionally happy ending was not a guarantee. Think of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, or Grimm’s The Juniper Tree. For more, just check out this short list of popular fairy tales’ more grisly original versions. A fairy tale, to me, is a story of transformation and survival (and survival isn’t guaranteed).

What keeps both classic fairy tales and the fairy tale form relevant is that it’s concerned with deciphering and navigating something in our world that is either overtly or covertly dangerous. Characters, often innocent children, must outwit stronger foe who often commands powerful magic or is entrenched in the established power structure of the world. This foe often first presents itself in a benevolent guise (e.g. the witch in Hansel and Gretel).

Classic fairy tales are still relevant because the world is still a dangerous place and life difficult to navigate. This point is well made in Fairy Tale Review’s response to Terrance Rafferty’s comments about the resurgence of fairy tale tropes on both the big and little screens.

“The New York Times article states that “The world from which fairy tales and folk tales emerged has largely vanished, and although it pleases us to think of these stark, simple, fantastic narratives as timeless, they aren’t.” [meaning] their stark themes are outdated. As long as child abandonment, extreme poverty, racism, genocide, famine, and all manner of senseless violence remain in this world, we will have fairy tales. Many (not all) offer radical solutions to very real problems.” 

Gamer was lambasted for being derivative. (that’s rich — in today’s cinematic landscape filled with sequels, remakes and, God help us, 3D re-releases). Gamer works as a modern fairy tale because there are themes in it that have been occurring in writing and onscreen for a long time now. Themes that are going to keep popping up because they are mapping out the dark, enchanted wood of our modern day world.

In Gamer, John Tillman (Gerard Butler) is a death row inmate and an avatar for a teenage gamer who controls him through nanotechnology. They are part of a massive multiplayer game called Slayers where inmate avatars battle and die for the entertainment of both the players and the general population as the games are also broadcast like sporting events.  

Ken Castle, Slayers mad billionaire inventor (played with absolute glee by Michael C. Hall) has also created a Sims or Second Life like game called Society where people can control human avatars. These avatar actors endure countless pornographic degradations within the decadent milieu of the game. 

Angie (Amber Valletta)

Tillman is driven to survive Slayers so that he can rescue his wife Angie who now works as an avatar in Society.  He is aided by Humanz, a hactavist group that helps him escape from the game. They are on a mission to make people aware of Castle’s sinister plan to enslave everyone through his nanotechnology. The Humanz functioned like a Greek chorus for the movie’s big ideas, providing glimpses of the dark forest that we might easily get lost in. 

Since the arrival of mass media people have been telling stories about its pleasures and pitfalls. Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. In it he references Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World (which was published in 1932).

“Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. … feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.””

Gamer portrays a consumerist Apocalypse where our appetites have become so jaded that only the most extreme entertainments will satisfy. Some critics complained that the portrayal of the game Society was over the top, yet today 30 percent of global web traffic is pornography.

As far as Slayers, humans fighting to the death for our amusement was an actual thing in the days of Rome’s gladiatorial games. It has been a trope in entertainment ever since (recently, The Running Man -the book came out in 1982, the movie  in 1987- and more recently the brand new Hunger Games franchise).

Today, it’s not just media, but the marriage of media and technology that creates the dark, enchanted wood we must navigate. In the 80s cyberpunk arrived to address the place of technology in our lives. Technology has been changing our lives from the outside for years, now with nanotech it will soon become part of us. A powerful and dangerous magic indeed. Blade Runner came out in 1982, Videodrome in 1983.  More recently, The Matrix franchise,  and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Avatar came out in the same year as Gamer.

The characters in Gamer, driven by the hope of a pardon or, more grimly, by simple economic need,  hand over their free will and become proxy players for the entertainment of the haves of the world. Nanex, the technology that allows someone else to control them, infects and then transforms the very cells of their brains. Gamer pivots on the scene where Tillman finds his wife while she’s on the clock at Society. She’s locked in, a puppet moving and speaking according to her controller’s wishes. He cradles her face in his hands while threatening this unseen player who watches him through her eyes and speaks to him through her voice.

It raises the question of what happens to our humanity when we hand ourselves over to technology, or when we recruit the most vulnerable members of society:

A “homeless hotspot” at Austin’s 2012 SXSW festival

A fairy tale is a story we keep repeating to ourselves because it maps dangers we must understand in order to survive. We are telling stories like the one in Gamer in order to master the dangerous magic of technology, to understand its place in our lives, in our minds, and in our bodies.

*If you want more to chew on regarding Gamer, be sure to check out Saviro’s massive defense of the movie, which has lots of thinky thinks about culture, this movie, and movies in general. He makes a lot of worthy points even if he did make my brain hurt. It’s worth a read. 

** An hour and a half is not short! Not so long ago it was a perfectly respectable length for a movie, especially when the story you want to tell fits in it, and I think that most do. Lately I feel like filmmakers have been cramming 90 minute stories into 200+ minute movies. As if movie goers are bulk-bin bargain hunters: “Oh honey, this one’s 180 minutes long. So the $45.00 we spent on tickets and concessions comes out to just .25 cents per minute, such a deal!”

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