NEW YORK -- In the online "virtual world" called Second Life, users create avatars -- 3-D alter egos -- who socialize, shop and have sex with other avatars.
In the new action thriller Gamer -- set in the near future -- there's a similar, fetish-filled world called Society. But instead of controlling imaginary avatars, users vicariously manipulate live human beings whose brains have been altered to receive signals.
Extend the same idea to ultraviolent, multi-player online games like Call of Duty, and you have the central sci-fi concept for Gamer, which blasts into theatres Friday.
In the movie's super-bloody shooter game, Slayers, players control actual death-row inmates who carry machine guns and battle to the death.
Gerard Butler, the rugged Scottish actor who played the Spartan King Leonidas in 300, stars as Kable, a kick-ass inmate-gladiator who is the avatar of a teenage boy.
Desperate to reunite with his wife (Amber Valletta), who is trapped in the scary realm of Society, Kable must try to escape the game and destroy the megalomaniac who created it (Michael C. Hall from TV's Dexter).
Butler, 39, is Hollywood's most wanted guy's guy. After co-starring this summer as a macho lout in the rom-com The Ugly Truth, he'll soon be seen as a vigilante in Law Abiding Citizen, his first project as a producer.
In New York recently, the dark-stubbled, easygoing actor took time out from shooting The Bounty with his rumoured girlfriend, Jennifer Aniston, to promote Gamer, which has been in the can since 2007.
"The film is really a bunch of testosterone fuel-injected brutality," Butler tells reporters in his Scots burr, his unserious tone suggesting he's well aware that Gamer's key audience will be thrill-seeking males.
Butler says he trained hard for the role, but didn't want to look as bulked up as in 300.
Between movies, he says, "I try and find this balance of not getting too skinny and not staying too big.... I wouldn't be able to pull off a P.S. I Love You or an Ugly Truth if I was that guy (in 300).
"As an actor, if you try to keep the variety of work that I try to, and swap genres, then you have an ever-morphing body."
The tall, athletic actor says he has been injured on every action movie he's done. In this one he was hit by flying debris and sliced his back on a wrecked vehicle. His character spends most of the picture in combat, but he says the most challenging scene was one in which he finds his wife.
"Everything about Kable is so contained, and so strong and so silent. Finally, when he lets out his emotion it's like a flood."
The Glasgow-born Butler, whose look one journalist described as "beat-up beefcake," has played warriors from Attila the Hun to Beowulf, but he's no empty-headed hunk. He's a law school graduate who was fired for his partying ways just before qualifying as a lawyer in his early 20s. One of his dream projects is to star as Scottish poet Robbie Burns in a planned biopic.
Butler says the frightening future of Gamer is based on today's scientific reality. He recommends a book called Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau, which describes experiments in which tiny chips linked to computers have been implanted in animal brains.
Writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who say they're too busy to be avid gamers, suggest that if the games Society and Slayers were available now, people -- including themselves -- would play them.
"It's true, technology will take us over at some point," says Neveldine. "So it's kind of fun to go there in a movie and see this dark world.... But we had to make it fun and exciting. That's why we need the sex and violence in there.... (Audiences) just want to sit back, eat popcorn and get their ass kicked."
"The whole point of it is that it's narcotic," adds Taylor. "It's just so fun, it's inevitable that people are going to want to press that button."
Gamer purports to be a cautionary tale about the dehumanizing direction in which technology and entertainment are headed. But by repeatedly plunging movie-goers into the disturbing games it depicts -- full of gut-wrenching first-person violence and sexual titillation -- is it participating in that which it critiques?
"It is," Butler acknowledges. "There's a fascination with watching this kind of thing.... But there is a genuine warning in there, as well.
"(The film) is saying that in that world (of gaming), there's a coldness. People have cut themselves off. They see these characters as not human....
"I don't think the film is so far from the truth."
Cranking it up
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the boyish writer-directors of the action thriller Gamer, are unusual for working as a team. They're even more unusual for operating the cameras themselves on their amped-up action flicks (notably Crank and Crank High Voltage), often while wearing rollerblades.
Neveldine is newly married to actress Alison Lohman (Drag Me to Hell), who has a small role in Gamer. He and Taylor are self-described "adrenaline junkies." They say they want to take their "guerrilla filmmaking sensibility" to an ever-larger stage. Gamer's budget is $50 million, versus only $12 million for the 2006 cult hit Crank, which was offered to Gerard Butler but starred virile Brit Jason Statham.
For Gamer, the directors used a cutting-edge lightweight prototype camera. Unlike the HD camera used on Crank, which was attached by a cable to a mobile "tech centre," the new RED camera stored images on digital cards, freeing the filmmakers to closely follow the frenetic action.
The partners pride themselves on filming explosive action sequences in real locations, without using "green screen" computer-generated simulations.
"If you put the camera in peril, it feels dangerous to the audience," says Neveldine. "If you (the viewer) don't feel Gerry Butler is really in danger in the movie, you're just not going to care. And he was. We almost killed the guy!"
"If you're watching something that was created on a computer, on some gut level, you know it's fake," says Taylor. "So we like to stage stuff for real. We really crash cars, we really blow things up, we really throw people off buildings. And we put ourselves, as (camera) operators, right in the middle of all that. So hopefully the final product is going to feel more urgent, more violent....
"We've done a few days on movies with green screens. We sit behind a monitor, and it's so boring. If we had to shoot a whole movie like that, we couldn't do it. We're too ADD (attention-deficit disorder)."
Gamer is edited in a frantically rapid style, many of its battlefield and nightclub scenes coming at the viewer in a hyperkinetic torrent. It's part of the filmmakers' attempt to simulate the intensity of video games.
"We're hoping it's not too much," says Taylor. "But our feeling is that audiences are capable of parsing (information) a lot quicker than people give them credit for."