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Saturday, May 2, 2015

GAMEBOX 1.0 -- Movie Review by Porfle

[This review originally appeared online at in 2007.]

"Once you begin, you won't be able to quit..."

When I first read the synopsis for GAMEBOX 1.0 (2004), about a videogame tester who receives a mysterious new game console in the mail and soon becomes trapped in a dangerous digital world from which there is no escape, it sounded very reminiscent of movies like David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Well, in an early scene, directors David and Scott Hillenbrand acknowledge this similarity by having one character ask another if he wants to take in a double feature: VIDEODROME and eXistenZ.

They might as well have also mentioned TRON, SIN CITY, COOL WORLD, BRAINSCAN, and even ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THE WIZARD OF OZ while they were at it, because, thematically and/or visually, this movie has echoes of all of these, among others. Fortunately, though, GAMEBOX 1.0 gives these familiar elements enough of a new spin to make it a lot of fun to watch on its own.

Going in to work just to play videogames all day would be a dream job for a most guys, and certainly not what you'd think of as "toil", but for Charlie Nash (Nate Richert, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch"), the recent shooting death of his girlfriend Kate (Danielle Fishel) by a trigger-happy cop has sucked the joy out of his life and turned him into a shell of his former self. When he finds an unmarked package containing the new game console in his mailbox, he's intrigued. He puts on the headset and pushes the "start" button, and finds himself in the middle of a digital dreamworld in which he gets to shoot bad guys, romance babes, and drive fast cars and motorscooters. With three different levels--"Crime Spree", "Zombie Land", and "Alien Planet"--to choose from, and a hyper-realism Charlie's never experienced before, the game promises to be a unique experience in virtual reality.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be a little too realistic. When he gets shot, it hurts. When he uses up his three "lives", he really dies. And when he wants out, the game voice informs him that once he starts, he can't quit. Taking off the headset and trying to go about his normal life again does no good, because the game has infested his brain to the point where he can no longer discern the difference between real life and fantasy. So Charlie's only alternative is to stay in the game and actually beat it. This won't be easy.

The Gamebox 1.0 comes with a special camera so you can take pictures of your friends, which are then downloaded into the console so that their likenesses can be used for various characters. For the bad guy, Ao Shun, the game voice suggests using someone Charlie really hates. Naturally, Charlie hates Officer Ronald Hobbes (Patrick Kilpatrick), the cop who shot Kate, more than anyone else, so he snaps a shot of Hobbes' newspaper picture. He also toys with the idea of using Kate's likeness as well, but thinks better of it. No use torturing himself.

But the game can scan his thoughts, and before long, Charlie meets a character named Princess who is the spitting image of his dead girlfriend. Princess has a briefcase chained to her wrist, which she must deliver to a place called the Blue Mountain Observatory. Charlie figures that if he helps her do this, he can beat the game and escape from its clutches. Meanwhile, the deadly Ao Shun is hot on their heels every step of the way, trying his best to get his hands on the briefcase and eliminate Charlie one life at a time.

The nocturnal cityscape of "Crime Spree", where Charlie begins his quest, has some of the look and feel of SIN CITY and COOL WORLD, only more pixilated. I've often criticized movies for having "videogame-level" CGI effects, but here, they're supposed to look like that, and for the most part it's pretty convincing even when it looks cheesy. The live actors interact well with the green-screen backgrounds, and the directors do a good job of utilizing familiar videogame elements such as "health" (symbolized here by a glowing heart that heals all wounds), first-person shooter scenarios, an assortment of weapons at your fingertips, and the sick feeling you get when one of your precious "life" icons disappears.

As Charlie and Princess search for the "Blue Mountain", they suddenly find themselves on the "Zombie Land" level. The zombies look like ninjas and move like skittery, fast-motion spider monkeys who have to pee really bad. Whether attacking in waves or surrounding an abandoned house in which Charlie and Princess are trapped, they're pretty creepy. At one point, Charlie encounters his real-life friend Pete (Patrick Cavanaugh), who claims to be stuck inside the game, too. But is it really him? Or just a ruse the game's using to screw with him? Either way, Pete turns out to be a huge liability as he starts grabbing all the "health" icons for himself and finally makes off with the briefcase after chopping Princess' hand off with a hatchet.

Eventually, they reach the "Alien Planet" level at last, where they find themselves in the middle of a war zone with human soldiers battling swarms of flying saucers. Somehow I don't think these games would be all that exciting to a real-life gamer, but the stakes are so high here that it doesn't matter. By this time, as you might have guessed, Charlie's in love with Princess, and willing to sacrifice his life (or one of them, at least) for her. And he's managed to convince her that nothing around them is real, including her, so there's really no point in going on.

Sensing this, the game gives Charlie an added incentive to continue playing by transporting the two of them into a more realistic environment--a simulation of the hospital where the real Charlie is lying in a coma, on the verge of death, his mind locked in the game. It is here, in the lower depths of the hospital building, that the final showdown between Charlie and Ao Shun will take place, and the secret of the briefcase will finally be revealed. It's not a huge surprise, but it worked for me.

The lead actors do a nice job in their roles--Nate Richert's Charlie is kind of like a dumpy, depressed Peter Parker, somebody I could identify with, and Danielle Fishel (NATIONAL LAMPOON PRESENTS DORM DAZE, "Boy Meets World") as Princess/Kate is cute as a button. My favorite part, though, was seeing one of my all-time favorite actors, Patrick Kilpatrick, get to play a co-starring role for a change instead of his usual bit parts. You may remember him best as the first gangster to die (spectacularly) in LAST MAN STANDING, or as THE STAND's vile Ray "Hey, Mutey" Booth. He seems to be having a blast here, whether using his samurai sword to deflect Charlie's bullets as he giggles and mugs wildly (as a videogame baddie should) or being really scary and menacing as the real-life bad cop Hobbes.

I'm not too up-to-date on gaming--the Atari 2600 was more my speed--so I don't know what kind of impression this film will have on modern gamers. I can imagine them possibly spending the whole time unfavorably judging "Crime Spree", "Zombie Land", and "Alien Planet" against their favorite games and finding them rather lame. Or, perhaps their own experiences will help them relate more to the characters and their predicament. Me, I was intrigued by the premise and found the story and the visuals interesting throughout. GAMEBOX 1.0 succeeds, in my opinion, not because of a big budget, but because the filmmakers had the imagination and enthusiasm to take a modest budget and play it for all it was worth.


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