NB: The following contains spoilers.
How do you make an interesting film about coding a videogame? It sounds like a difficult subject to dramatise on the face of it. But ultimately, all great stories are more about the relationships between characters than what they do for a living. A movie that contained nothing but boxing matches for 100 continuous minutes would leave audiences reeling. The Rocky movies were approximately 90 percent drama to 10 percent boxing, and audiences, for the most part, flocked to see them.
BBC’s The Gamechangers takes the Rocky approach to Grand Theft Auto – specifically, the making of 2004’s hit sequel San Andreas, the controversy surrounding a hidden sex scene on the disc, and the legal tussle that followed. In its dramatisation of real events, the story focuses less on the specifics of all-night programming marathons and play testing, and more on the parallels between two men on either side of the Atlantic.
In one corner, we have Sam Houser (Daniel Radcliffe), the reclusive, 30-something perfectionist who presides like a boy king over his studio, Rockstar North. In the other corner, there’s Jack Thompson (Bill Paxton), the Florida-based lawyer determined to bring Rockstar to account for the violent and – he strongly believes – potentially corrupting content in its games.
The pair never meet, at least in this film, but they have more in common than they realise. They’re both into their ballgames (Thompson: golf, Houser: table tennis) and they’re both zealously dedicated to their causes. Thompson’s a devout Christian and Houser, bizarrely, appears to worship the late Hollywood producer Don Simpson. Houser has a poster of Simpson on his wall, staring down like a saint on a stained glass window.
Written by James Wood (Ambassadors, Rev.), The Gamechangers is seemingly at pains to bring balance to a complex story that takes in politics, art, commerce, religion, freedom of speech and censorship. Part of the problem with this even-handed approach is that Wood gives himself too much to do in the space of 90 minutes.
Every word of dialogue is spent on exposition. Take the opening scene, for example: on a TV, two news readers discuss, with the scripted enthusiasm of salespeople on a shopping channel. “Vice City lets you be a gangster in your own home!” one anchor coos. “Yes!” gushes the next. “As for the seminal Grand Theft Auto III, the question game watchers are asking is, ‘Can Sam Houser’s Rockstar Games pull off making the most successful game ever twice?'”
Things go downhill from there. The Gamechangers appears to be using David Fincher’s The Social Network as its template, depicting Sam Houser as a faintly tyrannical genius whose vision for a groundbreaking new videogame alienates everyone around him, including his own brother, Dan Houser (Ian Keir Attard). But divorced from Aaron Sorkin’s vibrant dialogue and David Fincher’s precise filmmaking, The Gamechangers is less Social Network and more The Fifth Estate, the 2013 film in which Benedict Cumberbatch stepped uneasily into the role of Julian Assange.
Daniel Radcliffe seems equally ill at ease as Houser, perhaps because there isn’t any hook to his character. Does he have any interests other than movies and making games? Is he in a relationship with anyone? The Gamechangers leaves us none the wiser. One scene, where he chucks a pot of pencils at the back of Rockstar co-founder Jamie King (Joe Dempsie) should tell us something about Sam’s passive-aggressive mentality. Instead, it’s just left hanging there, awkwardly.
Bill Paxton fares better as Jack Thompson, but this is largely because Paxton’s seasoned and charismatic enough to make the most of a flat character. If the scenes at Rockstar feel like an extended episode of Nathan Barley without the self-awareness, the scenes at the Thompson household are like something out of The Stepford Wives; sure, we get that Thompson’s doggedly determined to prove the link between violent games and real-world criminality in court, but we seldom get the sense that Thompson and his family are living, breathing people. Ironically, in a film about videogames, the players in The Gamechangers feel more crude and mechanical as the non-player characters in, say, BioShock Infinite.
When The Gamechangers isn’t toe-curlingly awkward, it’s simply crass. One graphic sequence shows the moment where Devin Moore kills three officers at a police station, and it’s shot from the same third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective as one of the bigger Grand Theft Auto sequels. Seemingly intended as an illustration of Moore’s statement that “Life is like a videogame”, it runs the risk of trivialising a horrible and very real tragedy.
There’s undoubtedly a great film to be made about the strange world of videogame design: the deadlines, the competition, the secrecy, the multi-million dollar budgets, the hundreds of artists and programmers, the hype, the exhaustingly long hours. The Gamechangers most certainly isn’t that film.
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