ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — When invited to the set of the new film from the makers of "Crank," the e-mail said the flick was simply called "Game." The backs of the director's chairs, the clapboard and everything else around the set also referred to the winter '08 release with the same word.
Toward the end of the visit, however, the studio explained that the monosyllabic moniker likely wouldn't stick, and that we could refer to the film with any "untitled" listing we deemed appropriate.
Based on what we saw, we're going with "Untitled, Super-Intense Sci-Fi Flick Starring the Guy From '300' and Ludacris, Overflowing With Action, Adrenaline and a Plot So Ambitious It Will Either Be an Instant Classic or Something That Doesn't Make a Lick of Sense."
OK, maybe that's too many letters for the theater marquee, but it at least summarizes a flick that defiantly dodges such attempts at summary. "This is one of those movies where I'd rather be at work than not be at work," laughed an ecstatic Gerard Butler, the aforementioned leader of the "300" Spartans. "A lot of movies, I want that time off [when they don't need me]. But this one, it's like, 'I'm going in! I'm going to the BMX park today!' "
As if to punctuate the point, moments later a loud explosion was heard, accompanied by a flame so hot that it could warm your face from 200 feet away. After the smoke cleared and the debris hit the ground, writer/director Mark Neveldine climbed up from the dirt pits of the enormous motorcycle-racing course, filth forming a blanket over everything but his ear-to-ear smile. One thing was for sure: This wasn't no Spielberg movie.
"This rig will allow Logan Lerman, who's playing Simon, to glide along with Gerard when he's running," explained Neveldine's equally energetic partner, Brian Taylor, while showing off an on-the-spot contraption they've created to make it look like a young boy has immersed himself inside a futuristic video game. "When you see it, it won't seem like he's moving; it'll seem like he's standing still and tracking a character like you would in 'Grand Theft Auto.' It's a little bizarre, but it'll make sense visually."
Neveldine and Taylor made that promise many times during the "Crank" shoot, going so far as to film chase scenes on roller skates, all in the name of giving the audience an in-your-face view it had never seen before. This time around, the duo have created something they've dubbed the "Peter Pan Cam," basically a system of wires lifting the director up and down, dipping him dangerously into the middle of the action.
"Neveldine and Taylor like to work with a lot of ideas, and we're constantly exploring them and taking them to their fullest potential — and then seeing which ones are going to live," explained producer David Rubin. "We're still processing all the ideas for this movie."
Which brings us to the film's constantly evolving "The Sims"-meets-"The Running Man" plot. Set in a time described as "some years from this very moment," the story follows Kable (Butler), a burly prisoner in a jail system now financed by a private company. Video games have hijacked pop culture to the point where the most popular diversion is "Slayers," a first-person shooter set in a "Second Life"-like environment. But the avatars are actually prisoners like Kable, controlled by implants they willingly install in their brains in exchange for the faintest hope of freedom.
"We have four main games, and every single one is going to be different," explained Butler, looking around at the motorcycles-and-machine-guns setting of one of the game's levels. "There's so much character and gruesomeness to it all."
A prisoner needs to successfully complete 30 games to earn amnesty, and the script begins with Kable as the only prisoner to have ever reached 27 wins. Fifteen-year-old "3:10 to Yuma" actor Lerman is the gaming rock star who has been manipulating Kable from his wealthy family's living room, engaged by a gaming system that follows the boy's every gesture like a Wii on steroids, then forces Butler's character to do the same in real life.
"I didn't see the body parts till I got to the car; there's a lot of that in this movie," grinned the affable Butler, moments after filming a scene that has him shooting and running his way across the BMX track, dodging bullets, bikers and bodies. "I played it real tough, but to turn around and see bodies and half-heads? That's really disgusting. It's intense."
If you haven't wrapped your mind around the plot at this point, it's probably useless to mention that Kyra Sedgwick plays a reporter trying to take the game down, Ludacris and Alison Lohman are militant protesters trying to free Kable, and John Leguizamo is a fellow prisoner. It would also further confuse you if we brought up the "fly cams" that film the prisoner's adventures, the secondary game that controls the pedestrians fleeing from every explosion, or the manner in which Kable and Simon eventually start communicating with each other.
"Here's the thing: I'm always amazed how, in films, it's the scenes you think are going to be awesome that sometimes aren't ... and the scenes that you never really thought [would work] end up being amazing," marveled Butler, arguably the fastest-rising Hollywood star of 2007. "We've only been filming for eight days now, and every day has been amazing. Every set has been incredible. There's something very open and yet intense and involved and real and gripping about it. ... I think this is turning out to be really cool."
For now, we'll have to take Butler's word for it. But whatever this thing ends up looking like, whatever it's eventually called, it just might become a name worth remembering.
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