In the near future, America avoids being bankrupted by their prison system by making convicts fight for their freedom in 'Slayers', a wildly popular blood sport. The slightly original (if nonsensical) twist is that each fighter is actually being controlled remotely by a player, using brain-replacing nanites. Of course, our protagonist is an innocent man set up by the main baddie who, for some reason, has decided to dispose of a risk to his entire scheme by making him fight to the death in an internationally-televised game show. The mind-controlling technology is also used in 'Society', which is like a cybersexier Second Life except your avatar's a real person whose body you're hiring. Oh, and there's a mysterious band of hackers called Humanz who oppose all this sort of mind-control malarkey by interrupting broadcasts with incoherent rants and crude animations.
Does this all sound vaguely familiar? It should. Slayers is basically Running Man (though having 'players' behind it all makes me think of Avalon), the grungy yet heroic rebel hackers are very Matrix, the Society costuming recalls Fifth Element, the more pretentious 'video art' bits reminded me of The Cell, and the protagonist seems to be stolen from the Death Race remake (though I only saw the trailer for that). I put it to you that any film that encourages unfavorable comparisons with that motley bunch is doing something wrong. I also counted at least two explicit Blade Runner references, which were a doubly poor choice as they broke immersion and did so by reminding me of a much better film.
It lurches between styles in a way that's all the more annoying for obviously being deliberate. The bits in the 'game' are all grimy and jerky, like watching someone else play Half Life 2 in an earthquake; the prison is a blazing white edifice of concrete and sand; Society is like a soft-fetish-porn Aqua video; and the real world is your standard-issue crowded metropolis with video screens everywhere and slightly cyberpunky fashions.
A better film might get away with condemning mindless violence while encouraging the audience to revel in it, but it just seems cheap here. No-one really has much of a character, so it's hard to feel for the hundreds of interchangeable figures that we see gunned down or blown up. The computer game aspect further robs the combat of significance. The bits where the protagonist is unexpectedly able to talk to his 'controller' could have been intriguing, but actually they just discussed winning strategies. I wonder if this 133t 17 year-old who's participating in the mayhem from a safe distance (physically and emotionally) is supposed to be an audience surrogate. Sure, he's a callous, self-absorbed prick obsessed with sex and violence who doesn't end up contributing much or learning anything, but that may well be their target demographic.
I get the impression that the film-makers fondly believe that they're making a point, but I'm not convinced. 'If everything that happened on-line and in games was really real, that would be bad'? True, but hardly insightful. 'Don't trust people who're trying to control your mind'? Well, duh. 'The masses just want sex and violence, and don't care about the consequences.' Ah, perhaps that's it. Very meta.