DECEMBER 19, 2009
Maybe someday, someone will crack the nut that is the “Trapped in a video game” horror movie. The sub-genre is littered with the corpses of things like Brainscan and Gamebox 1.0 (I give Stay Alive a pass due to its Sophia Bush-ness and Air Supply references), and it seems like no one ever learns from the mistakes of their predecessors. And now we have Ghost Machine, which is better than most but still falls into the same traps as the others, namely the basic fact that it’s hard to feel worried about someone who is just sitting in a chair and in danger of being brain-fried, as opposed to a flesh and blood villain inflicting actual harm on the people it is “killing”.
See, the reason Freddy worked (at first) is because it played on dreams, something we all do on a nightly basis. But not everyone plays virtual reality games, so there’s that inherent sense of detachment already, and then when you’re constantly cutting away from the “action” to show people sitting in chairs with helmets and wires attached to their person, you lose a lot of the suspense as well.
Now to be fair, it’s not a traditional video game, but a combat simulator. So we are spared a bunch of faux gamer lingo and nonsensical visuals (until the climax anyway), not to mention the usual ridiculously out of date (or just plain incorrect) depiction of video games. The simulator seems largely accurate, and I enjoyed little beats here and there, such as when Rachael Taylor’s character is admonished for only killing an enemy because her brain reminded her that she was just playing a game. And in turn, the villain is more interesting than usual - it’s the ghost of a suspected terrorist who died from being tortured in a post 9/11 military base.
But in a way that’s also sort of the main problem with the movie - it’s a deadly serious approach (using true life storytelling devices) to a goofy plot about a ghost killing people inside a video game. The reason a movie like Stay Alive works (for me, I know I’m in the minority there) is because the characters are cardboard movie kids and they’re all having fun, only to be dispatched by a ridiculous plot device. But just because Ghost Machine deals with 9/11 and torture doesn’t mean that we can take the horror stuff any more seriously, and in fact their lack of sync is what keeps the movie from being good. A more traditional ghost movie would have made more sense, I think. Or, if they wanted to use the combat simulator motif, then they should have dealt with less serious matters and had the villain be some generic ghost (or hell, the Devil, like in Evilspeak).
It also takes too long to get going. This is definitely the type of movie that should have an opening scene kill that sets up the basic plot (i.e. some random guy logs into the simulator, meets the ghost, and gets killed). Instead we just get an endless scene of them driving to the base, and a subplot about Taylor being harassed by one of her superiors, and a sort of love triangle between her and the characters played by Luke Ford and Sean Faris, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s almost like they were embarrassed about making a killer video game movie and tried to keep that element out of it for as long as possible.
But once it DOES get going, it’s at least entertaining to a degree. There’s a few too many shots of our (small) cast wandering down hallways with their assault rifles at chest height, and the location is as dull as you can get in a movie, but the more interesting antagonist and largely likable cast makes it easier to swallow, and the requisite human villain is a truly disgusting being, and the filmmakers wring some decent suspense out of whether or not he will try to assault Taylor’s character yet again. And the ghost has a pretty sweet design (at least it’s not another long-haired Asian girl, even if she occasionally acts like one), so there’s something. In short, it could be worse (i.e. Arcade).
The DVD has a couple of extras, neither particularly essential. One is a standard making of, and the other is an interview with one of the writers. It’s worth noting that both pieces are poorly edited, with people often being cut off in mid-thought (including the final line from the screenwriter, who is in the middle of making a point about the lack of Irish-lensed horror films and is faded into end credits). Pretty annoying. Also, Faris seems to confuse ghostly phenomena with simple science; he provides an anecdote about feeling cold in a certain room, only for it to feel warm 10 minutes later when it is filled with people (he chalks it up to spirit energy dissipating when more people are around. Yeah, it sounds cooler than “body heat”, I’ll give you that.). The boring backgrounds of the film spread over to the piece as well; Taylor and Ford are filmed in front of an off-white wall. Everything appears to be shot with a webcam too, for some reason. I don’t get why studios continue to produce such dull filler for their DVDs - it’s been almost a decade since anyone was impressed that their disc came with more than “just the movie”, so either produce something truly interesting, or give more of your bit budget over to the feature! I should note that the audio is pretty disappointing on the film - even at full volume it was far too low, even though the extras and Anchor Bay’s usual assortment of trailers sounded fine.
What say you?