aka Real Playing Game
Directors – Tino Navarro & David Rebordão, Screenplay – Tino Navarro & Artur Ribeiro, Producer – Tino Navarro, Photography – Jose Antonio Loureiro & Andre Szankowski, Music – Pedro Marques, Visual Effects Supervisors – Rafael Galdo & Nuno Mesquita, Visual Effects – Arqui300 & Imasblue, Special Effects – Nuno Elias, Art Direction – Jose Pedro Penha. Production Company – MGN Filmes
Rutger Hauer (Steve Battier), Cian Barry (Young Steve Battier), Alix Wilton Regan (Young Alice Fjallbacka), Nik Xhelilaj (Young Boris Zvonarev), Pedro Granger (Young Carlos Santiago), Christopher Goh (Young Li Meng), Genevieve Capovilla (Young Maria Moulineaux), Dafne Fernandez (Young Kate Barrington), Chris Tashima (Mr Chan), Reuben Henry Biggs (Young Okot Ba), Cloudia Swann (Young Yasmin Nova), Debora Monteiro (Young Jorge Valdez), Soraia Chaves (Sarah)
Aging Steve Battier joins nine other aging wealthy individuals who have paid large sums of money to a secretive organisation that offers an opportunity for them to be rejuvenated into a younger body. Steve is told they will all play a game. He is asked to choose a young body to inhabit and told that the winner of the game will get to permanently own that young body. The ten awake in their younger bodies inside a simulation of a ruin in Barcelona 2013. There they are told that they must kill one of their number every hour. The killer must also correctly ascertain the identity of the person they kill otherwise they will be eliminated too. As the group set about trying to deduce the identities of the others in the group, realising that some have changed ethnicities and sexes, the game becomes a harrowing one of torture and betrayal.
For anyone who has hung around fan culture, RPG sets up the quickly disappointed expectation that it is going to be a film about Role-Playing Gaming. This is probably why the film needs to offer an explanation that that is not the case by giving the alternate title Real Playing Game on the dvd cover (although not the actual credits of the film itself).
In actuality, RPG is another The Hunger Games (2012) wannabe. The Hunger Games, with its theme of teens engaged in a fight to the death, caught on with audiences in a big way and produced a number of imitators. RPG has taken its lead from there and offers up a scenario in which a group of handsome, good-looking young people are selected and placed in an arena with orders to kill each other until only one survives. There are times that RPG goes further than The Hunger Games did in intriguing ways – the combatants not only have to kill each other but guess the person’s correct identity, which turns the elimination game into an intriguing whodunnit scenario. Moreover, this is a much more sexualised game – rather than the mopey Katniss/Peta romance, the contestants are quickly getting it on and enjoying their younger bodies, while this is far more pan-sexual and we get-on-girl hook-ups and the intriguing idea that some of the players are not their original gender, leaving people questioning if they are having sex with a man in a woman’s body or vice versa. However, RPG is a far more lower-budgeted Hunger Games copy and looks as though it has shot around the site of a long-abandoned building and its grounds. (Certainly, the futuristic scenes that we get in the wraparound come with a polished coolness – all shadowless white lighting, sleekly designed lit-up cars, futuristic tech – that initially promises something far more visually impressive than we end up getting).
The result falls somewhere between The Hunger Games‘ source of inspiration Battle Royale (2000) with its teens abandoned on an island to murder one another in an elimination game, Seconds (1966) or else Transfer (2010) and Self/less (2015) with their plots of syndicates offering younger bodies to the wealthy, and Gamer (2009) with its combat between human avatars. Or perhaps even more so, the premise of one of the first ever Virtual Reality films Welcome to Blood City (1977) wherein people are placed inside a virtual Western simulation where the winner is the one who succeeds in eliminating everybody else.
It is not long into RPG that you start to feel intensely frustrated with the premise. For one, the film seems to have no clear idea where and how the scenario is taking place. As Rutger Hauer is introduced in the opening scenes, he is told that it is about old minds inhabiting younger bodies but how this can only happen temporarily and how the process kills the host’s mind. When they undergo the process, the contestants are placed into sarcophagi that look like full-body VR helmets and the assumption is that they are being projected into Virtual Reality, something confirmed by the scenes where the controller sits at a console selecting which scenario they will inhabit. So the question then is – why, with such a set-up, would you need to kill off the younger body? Why do you even need a physical body for the older mind to inhabit at all? Why the need for an elimination game as the old people could theoretically be kept in VR indefinitely, not just for a limited time? Even more confusingly, the film doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of who the younger selves are. You get the impression that they are the older minds implanted in younger bodies but at other times the group seem to regard what has happened as time travel and that they are now their younger selves.
The other major improbability is that you keep asking yourself, why someone who is fabulously wealthy would pay money to enter such a scenario? If I had seven figure sums to throw around, I would want to know that I was doing so on a process that gave me guaranteed rejuvenation, not something that was like a reality tv elimination game where most of the contestants, despite having paid to be there, end up being figuratively voted off the island. The film also conveniently avoids any explanation of what happens to the contestants when they are killed within the game. Do they just wake up and get sent home? Does this also kill them in real life? You sort of get the implication that the latter happens but why? If any corporation advertised that they were running a game that killed nine extremely wealthy people (on the promise of a process that does not appear to work anyway), do you not think they would be overrun by lawyers, not to mention law enforcement officials, closing them down within days?
It is an annoyingly contrived setting. There is no reason ever given why any of the rules are the way they are – why contestants need to kill each other, why one person has to die every hour, why they have to determine the identity of the murdered person, why they should all have partial amnesia about how they came to be there and who they are – other than that the film has decided that that is the case. The film could maybe have worked akin to the way Welcome to Blood City or The Maze Runner (2014) did, in engaging you in the in-game scenario as they are fighting for their lives before the big pullback to reveal it is all a simulation but RPG tells you what is happening from the outset. For a time, the film holds you to it with its games among the young people trying to work out who is who but a film should not leave you irritated the entire way through about how nonsensical and contrived its set-up is.