Sounding a bit like one of Alan Partridge’s desperate TV show pitches (“Err…Video Games with Daniel Radcliffe”), The Gamechangers takes a look at the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Rockstar’s battle with the Christian lawyer Jack Thompson.
Famous for trying to not be famous, Dan and Sam Houser have a testy, hands off approach to the media and have attempted to stop the show being broadcast due to trademark infringement. Having now seen the program I think it’s safe to say that it’s unlikely to encourage them to come out of the shadows and I suspect their issues will now lie with its quality and content rather than having a couple of logos on the wall.
Briefly touching, though never fully exploring, the neat juxtaposition between a British studio making a satire of U.S culture being challenged by a God-fearing, litigious, caricature of American attorneys, the film instead chooses to focus on the hot coffee scandal and the effect that fighting for the mature ESRB rating had on the studio. Although it makes a decent stab at portraying the cutthroat, brutal nature of the crunch period of development, watching a bunch of guys sit in an office and argue about age ratings just isn’t all that compelling.
On one side of the story, you’ve got Bill Paxton as Jack Thompson fending off hate calls and asking for divine intervention while hitting golf balls in his back garden. Paxton is completely squandered in this role; given very little to work with other than looking earnest and guilty to his suffering, supporting wife. But it’s in the portrayal of Thompson that raises the most eyebrows. Seen here as a sympathetic, moral crusader, the entire tone of the film is in his corner and his disbarment is shown as the big law firm getting one over the little guy. In reality it was down to consistent professional misconduct which in the film amounts to little more than writing a couple of snotty emails.
On the other hand Sam Houser, played by Daniel Radcliffe, is shown as a deeply unpleasant and socially incapable megalomaniac. I’ve never been particularly convinced by Radcliffe. Outside of his extraordinary performance of Alphabet Aerobics on Jimmy Fallon, he always exudes a lack of confidence in his own ability and an uncomfortable awkwardness that I find tough to watch. It’s almost like he’s a guy who was propelled into superstardom at a young age based on looking like someone that doesn’t exist. But no matter; to say that he’s the best thing about the film may be damning him with faint praise, but he at least manages to be watchable. Veering between someone you’d quite like to have a drink with and an unpredictable arsehole, his depiction is believable, although given the secretive nature of Houser, difficult to verify.
Outside of the main cast, I can’t quite believe that it’s now 2015 and we still can’t have someone playing a videogame on television without it being shown as some weird, trippy brain dump that renders the player impossible to communicate with. That the show was presumably made primarily for a videogame playing audience who would be interested in the creation of Grand Theft Auto, to show us shuffling zombies mindlessly picking up boxes from shop shelves is beyond insulting. To then punctuate the film with a soundtrack that’s made out of computery blips nearly made me cringe myself inside out. I don’t quite understand how when everyone is playing games these days no one seems to be able to film playing a game realistically, but it seems like we’re to be subjected to glassy-eyed, dribbling shut-ins or college jocks waving pads around and jumping across the sofa for a few more years yet.
You then have painful scenes of motion capturing break dancers (which appear to take place in the offices of Nathan Barley’s Sugar Ape magazine) and the Houser’s taking a tour of the hood dressed somewhat ironically like characters from Saint’s Row. It’s all so oddly presented; like it’s put together by a ninety year old man who gets his info about gaming and youth culture from The Daily Express. This is even more baffling when coupled with the continued referencing of table tennis which surely only serves as a nudge and a wink to those in the know. This disconnect between the film and its audience reaches its absolute nadir in the final scene where Radcliffe carjacks a passer-by and drives off into the distance while the scene slowly transforms into a videogame. Quite what this is supposed to mean or represent is anyone’s guess but I saw more convincing imitations of videogames in the nineties children’s show ReBoot.
In an effort to try and say something nice about the film, there is a rather good scene early on, where Devin Moore’s crime spree that was allegedly inspired by Vice City is filmed in the perspective of the game itself. But the suggestion that the game was responsible for his actions is heavily handled and only counterbalanced with a line from one of his victim’s relatives and a throw away comment by Houser at a point where the audience is unsympathetic to his arguments. As the show points out in its closing credits, the debate about videogame violence continues, but what the program fails to do is present that debate. Instead, it clumsily shoehorns in the headlines without exploring any of the factors.
Grand Theft Auto is obviously not beyond criticism. We’re nearly twenty years in and we’ve still not had a well written female character. But its success is attributed almost wholly to its violence, and bizarrely in the case of San Andreas, to the character customisation options which pretty much everyone decided was shit as soon as they turned the game on. The difficulty and craft in producing an open world as well designed as Rockstar’s is glossed over and creating a game engine apparently takes little more than five long-haired stereotypes hammering on a keyboard for a couple of minutes. The Gamechangers is supposed to be part of the BBC initiative to get young people into coding; to make the process appear that it takes little more than Radcliffe clicking his fingers is grossly disingenuous.
Every mention of this show I’ve seen in mainstream publications seems to question the point of its existence and unfortunately after watching it, I’m inclined to agree. Presumably there is a decent story somewhere about the creation of one of the most successful entertainment products of all time, but this is not it. Meandering, patronising and factually dubious, it’s a million miles away from the highly engaging game that serves as its inspiration. For a series that has so often taken its inspiration from television, to then inspire a production that fails both accurately and dramatically is disappointing. To use the parlance of Grand Theft Auto, consider this an opportunity well and truly “wasted”.