It’s been a while since I posted on here, huh. I just watched the BBC’s somewhat controversial film/documentary/drama The Gamechangers and felt compelled to write something, so here I am.
The Gamechangers (in case you’ve been living under a rock) is about Grand Theft Auto. To be more precise, it’s about two major controversies that arose following the release of Vice City and San Andreas. It primarily focuses on Sam Houser (co-creator of Rockstar Games) and Jack Thompson (a lawyer who is well known for being an anti-video game activist) and tells two stories which intertwine, despite the two never really meeting face-to-face.
If you’re interested in watching it, here’s a link. Be warned though, that’s a link to iPlayer so I have no idea how long it will be up for.
I think writing a complete review is a bit of a waste of time, but the film really intrigued me and I really wanted to get some thoughts down about it. So here you go.
- The script is awful. I’m not a professional scriptwriter so I might not be in a great position to judge somebody else’s script (I do appreciate that writing ninety minutes of script based around a series of court cases might be difficult), but it’s unbelievably bad in places. My favourite part of the film is when Jack Thompson’s wife Patricia explains what will happen to him in court as though he were a young child. The dialogue is far too heavy with exposition and it misuses so many terms. At one point, Houser discusses the “RPG” within San Andreas as though it were a game inside a game; it’s a throwaway comment in a single scene, but it really annoyed me – the designers of the game seem to have no idea what they’re talking about most of the time.
- On that point, what exactly did Sam Houser and his team actually do at Rockstar? According to The Gamechangers, very little. They have a lot of meetings about concepts, features and ideas, but they don’t really do that much work. If you’re hoping for some insight into how games are made, turn away now.
- I thought the two lead actors were actually pretty good, despite the criticism. Daniel Radcliffe as Sam Houser did what he could with a thin script, while Bill Paxton actually manages to convey the complexities of Jack Thompson’s character very well.
- The film glosses over several important questions, giving them little discussion time. Are video games too violent? Should developers be responsible for the social impact of their games? Should video games be more scrutinised than films, TV and music? All of these questions are featured in the narrative, but no discussion is really made on them. It’s a weird scenario; it’s a film all about ethics and responsibility, yet it never really makes a clear statement on anything. In fact, it kind of uses the real life outcomes of the two court cases to scoot the issue entirely – one of the final scenes talks about the creation of the Family Entertainment Protection Act in an “all’s well that ends well” sort of manner. It doesn’t discuss the issue or offer viewpoints at all; it simply lays the facts out and says “there you go, you solve it.” Weird.
- Going on from that, some might argue that Jack Thompson is actually portrayed as the hero throughout this film. Shots of Grand Theft Auto are used throughout the film (leading to Rockstar’s lawsuit against the BBC, of course), but they all focus on violence or sexual content. No other element of Grand Theft Auto is featured or even discussed. Sam Houser does occasionally discuss some of the creative ideas that eventually went into San Andreas (the customisation, the realism, the gang warfare focus), but eventually, the film simply focuses on the Hot Coffee scene and how Sam Houser desperately wanted it to feature, even suggesting that he might have left it in the code so it could be found. It doesn’t paint a balanced picture, is basically what I’m trying to say.
- The scene where Sam Houser bumps into Jack Thompson – lol.
- The scene where Sam Houser and Jack Thompson are Googling each other – lol.
- The scene in Compton – double lol.
- Rockstar Table Tennis makes a guest appearance! That was a surprisingly cool game.
- The final scene of the film is hilariously awful and it almost ruins anything that the film was trying to say or do. It shows Sam Houser having a fag, carjacking someone (as the real world slowly morphs into something that looks very similar to San Andreas) and killing a few pedestrians before driving off into the virtual sunset with the police chasing him. So, you’re saying that Grand Theft Auto is a murder simulator then? Or are you saying that Sam Houser was actually a maniac who created virtual worlds so he could unleash his evil inner demons upon them? Or (and perhaps worst of all), having roundly criticised the game throughout, are you then using the pedestrian killing and carjacking as a joke to leave people smiling? What a ridiculous final shot it is.
Well, that turned out to be a lot longer than I was expecting. Overall, I think the film is entertaining, but it really fails on several levels, much of which comes down to the woeful script. It’s well worth a watch though. I’m no expert, so I’m not entirely sure how accurate it all is (Rockstar, of course, have said it’s all complete nonsense), but it offers up the basic details of Grand Theft Auto’s two biggest controversies and that was enough to intrigue me.
The pitfalls, dangers and misadventures of creating artificial intelligence have been common themes in film for years – for this reason, perhaps, Chappie completely forgoes those perils and decides to look at the positives instead. Witnessing the birth of an AI and watching it learn, develop and grow (both in intellect and character) is utterly fascinating – this basic concept provides some great groundwork for Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi blockbuster.
At the heart of it is the titular hero – the innocent and almost painfully cute Chappie. Undoubtedly, some will find the robot’s childlike mindset annoying (or maybe even frustrating?) but there’s no denying the appeal – seeing Chappie copy He-Man’s sword wielding exploits is unashamedly heartwarming. Sharlto Copley’s skill in bringing the character to life will probably be overlooked by many (he provided voice and motion capture for Chappie); it really shouldn’t be.
Built around the character is a plot which rarely thrills or offends – it’s fairly standard sci-fi fare. Deon Wilson’s (Dev Patel) fleet of police robots has helped restore order to the crime-ridden streets of Johannesburg and his employers Tetravaal are experiencing phenomenal growth as a result. Rather than complain about the fact he doesn’t have his own office though, Deon simply goes home everyday to work on his AI project; not long into the movie, he succeeds and bids to insert his finished experiment into one of his police droids.
On the way though, he’s kidnapped by the band Die Antwoord, who apparently enjoy indulging in criminal activities when off tour – that might sound like a joke but bizarrely, they really do seem to be playing fictionalised versions of themselves. Anyway, they need money so they plan to steal some money but they need to shut the police robots off first so they can steal the money and so they kidnap the guy who made the robots and so it goes on; the pair have their moments but for the most part, their side of the story is impressively uninteresting.
Hugh Jackman’s role in the film is spectacularly disappointing too. As Vincent, he’s the main villain of the piece (hardly surprising – have you seen the mullet he’s rocking?) but he’s awfully one-dimensional and rather petulant too; much of his anger towards Deon simply stems from his robot being inferior to the police scouts. The film gives no background to the character and there seems to be little reason for his deep loathing towards Deon and his prized AI; it vaguely states that Vincent used to be a soldier at one point, like that’s an excuse to be a complete arsehole.
The plot’s a bit thin then but it does convey some great messages and themes. Blomkamp’s District 9 was highly acclaimed for its depiction of xenophobia and social segregation and some of those themes are lurking in the background of Chappie too. The film never directly confronts them (perhaps for the best) but it frequently dives into the murky crime underworld of Johannesburg, offering glimpses of the struggles people face in the city.
Violence is used beautifully by the film to illustrate just how unwelcoming this world can be. Chappie’s police scout body gets him into a spot of trouble with a gang of youths and Blomkamp effectively utilises slow-motion to really shock the viewer – the audience might view Chappie as an innocent, loveable child but the people of Johannesburg definitely don’t.
This also ties into the visual pleasures that the film provides; the Vodacom-advertising Ponte City Apartments (already a popular filming spot) provide several interesting scenes and Ninja’s hideout is awash with neon colour – Die Antwoord’s influence on the film must have been an inspiration here.
Unfortunately, in the final half an hour or so, the film falls apart. It stumbles from one far-fetched event to the next, throwing every loose plot thread into the mix in a vague hope that the end result will satisfy all; sadly, it fails. Most disappointing of all, though, is Blomkamp’s decision to suddenly allow ultra-violent influences to creep in; the film hypocritically begins to revel in the bloody violence that it seemingly condemned earlier, as though it desperately needs something exciting to keep the action movie fans happy. Even putting aside the divisive final plot events, the ending is a bitter disappointment.
Thankfully, the earlier, more intriguing moments of Chappie are strong enough to prevent the movie from turning into a total dud. There’s a real heart to the film and a lot can be excused as a result – the ending really does push that to the test though. It’ll be interesting to see if the same applies for Blomkamp’s next project – the forthcoming fifth installment in the Alien franchise.
Lou Bloom is not a nice man – the very first scene of Nightcrawler (which depicts Lou attempting to steal from a construction site, attacking a security guard and stealing his watch) tells us this fairly bluntly. Yet somehow, there’s an oddly engaging and charismatic appeal to the character – an intangible sort of quality which sets the tone for the dark but appealing Nightcrawler well.
Lou’s journey into the murky, brutal and competitive world of crime journalism is far more exciting than it really has any right to be, thanks to a great script and an acting masterclass from Jake Gyllenhaal. Slimy, eccentric and downright weird, in the hands of many actors, the conflicting appeal of Lou Bloom would have been lost. Happily though, Gyllenhaal dives right in to inject a thrilling mixture of dark amusement and terrifying fervour into an increasingly bleak world.
Lou’s antics are unforgivable (stealing a racing bike then trading it at a pawn shop for film equipment, all while mischievously riding around the shop) yet the purpose behind his grisly actions is kept at the forefront by a tightly written script which rarely wastes a line, let alone an entire scene.
Gyllenhaal is obviously the stand-out then but Nightcrawler features some great break-out performances from the supporting cast too. Riz Ahmed (probably most recognisable from cult comedy Four Lions) definitely deserves a mention for his role as Rick, Lou’s somewhat reluctant assistant. He serves as a balancing act to the whole thing – as Lou’s actions grow increasingly disturbing, Rick acts as the ignored shoulder angel; watching him dig his heels in as the narrative rolls on is immensely engrossing.
All this serves as a platform to build an enthralling tale about the growing dearth of ethics in TV journalism – the exploration of these elements is almost satirical. Lou’s commissioning editor Nina Romina (Rene Russo) sums it up neatly – “to capture the spirit of what we air, think of our news cast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”. This underlying scrutiny of seedy television production is immensely thought-provoking and it constantly finds new layers to confront.
All of this would be impressive for an experienced, well-versed director – the fact that Nightcrawler serves as the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy is staggering. The slick neo-noir elements suit the film’s content well with the subtle, mystical, synth-driven soundtrack perfectly capturing the mood. Light and shadow are used beautifully throughout, effectively conveying or contrasting the increasingly erratic swings of Lou’s mind; fans of top quality cinematography will find plenty to pour over here.
A tense, exhilarating thriller which manages to be effortlessly dark and disturbing, Nightcrawler is an absolute must-watch on several levels – Gyllenhaal’s performance will rightfully be lauded for years to come but it’s the more subtle elements which really impress. The script is engaging, conflicting and sprinkles humorous lines in at the opportune moments, allowing Gilroy to craft a film that will undoubtedly be tagged as a cult classic soon enough.