Another in the ever-growing line of virtual reality thrillers, GHOST MACHINE (2009) is well-made and fun to watch. While it never completely scores a bullseye as an action-adventure or as a scary movie, at least it isn't yet another dumb slasher flick.
Geek dreamgirl Jess (Rachael Taylor, who has great eyebrows), a beautiful but tough blonde trying to get into the British Army's special forces, has been training inside a new virtual-reality program designed to place the participant into flawlessly convincing battle situations. The gizmo's head technician, Tom (Sean Faris, PEARL HARBOR), is a young American computer genius who "borrows" the equipment for a little personal gaming with his pals, including Jess' boyfriend Vic (Luke Ford of THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR), brash pubcrawler Benny (Jonathan Harden), and Iain (Sam Corry, "The Clinic"), a security guard at the spooky old abandoned prison where their night of computer fun is to take place.
A series of sensors mounted at points throughout the prison map the environment for use in the game. Unbeknownst to the lads, however, is the presence of a malevolent ghost--the spirit of a female terrorist who was tortured to death during questioning by the military in the prison's dark, spooky basement--who enters the gaming environment along with them. Prisoner K (Hatla Williams), as she is known, is able to totally control the game, and through it, the players' minds. And whatever happens to them in the game manifests itself physically, so they're in a heap of trouble.
The VR warfare scenes are well done without leaning too heavily on the simulated-videogame-graphics look--the effect is achieved mainly through jittery camerawork and editing, and intentionally obvious computer-generated blood splatter. I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of the "first person shooter" thing, which is thankfully missing here. After awhile, the emphasis shifts away from this angle anyway when members of the group get lost in the program and Jess and Vic must enter the game to try and locate them before Prisoner K gets her mitts on them. Some late revelations about the nature of the game itself and Tom's motives for having them participate in it keep things fairly intriguing.
As Tom, Sean Faris has the sort of shark-like expression one associates with a cocky young Tom Cruise, which fits his cold and devious character well. The rest of the cast does a good job, especially Rachael Taylor as Jess. She's believable as a semi-tough soldier without having to act like Xena. Richard Dormer adds quite a bit of tension to the proceedings as stiff-necked military ogre Taggert, who not only sexually harasses Jess but eventually discovers the location of the illicit gaming session and throws a monkey wrench into everything. Lovely Hatla Williams doesn't have much to do as Prisoner K besides lurk around acting creepy but she's pretty good at it.
The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Surround 5.1 and English subtitles. Extras include a making-of featurette, an interview with writer Sven Hughes, and a trailer.
The finale of GHOST MACHINE turns into a bit of a bad-CGI fest, but the story's interesting enough to make up for it and there's a nice twist ending that might remind you of David Cronenberg's EXISTENZ. This movie probably won't blow your socks off or anything, but it's a worthy effort and chances are you'll find it fairly entertaining as long as you don't go into it expecting a terrifying ghost story, a pulse-pounding action flick, or THE MATRIX.
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