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Are We Having Fun Yet?


By Erica L. Werner

Mr. Payback

directed by Bob Gale

starring Christopher Lloyd

Mr. Payback," billed as Hollywood's first interactive movie, is further proof that the world is turning into a big video game. The most uncanny element of the digital revolution is that none of us can escape it, but almost none of us understands it at all. Since our access to the various technologies that surround us is regulated in away we cannot control, our relation to digital media is necessarily coerced.

Interfilm's "Mr. Payback," written and directed by Bob Gale (creator of "Back to the Future"), presents this coercion in a new light. The 20-minute movie, which you're invited to experience twice, is like a filmed Choose Your Own Adventure, except that audience members engage in a putative competition to determine the plot twists.

Mr. Payback (Billy Warlock) is "a hero for the common man--part man, part machine--programmed to seek outrageous justice for his clients against those who have done them wrong." An opening sequence introduces viewers to our hero and his attractive hacker sidekick Gwen (Holly Fields). Mr. Payback states his motto, "Don't piss me off!" and his mission, to rectify the evils of society. Then viewers choose from three plot lines, each one more politically correct than the last. In one, a woman has been sexually harrassed; in another, a black man has been fired form his job and cheated out of a large sum of money; in the third an hispanic man has been discriminated against and called a "taco eater."

In each case, predictably enough, it's payback time. Mr. Payback gets on the job, and with the help of the computer-literate Gwen and her pet geese--whose raison d'etre in the film is totally inexplicable --exacts revenge upon the villain responsible for his client's humiliation. The final scene always involves the wronged individual confronting the wrongdoer (as in life itself, the wrongdoer is always a white male) and meting out to him his just desserts, the exact nature of which are determined by audience participation.

Viewers push buttons on pistol grips mounted on the armests of their seats; graphics indicate when it's time to vote and what the choices are. During the voting, a running tally appears on-screen. The idea is to push your button of choice not just once--which one would think would be all that was strictly necessary--but as many times and as fast as possible. This is clearly designed to foster an atmosphere of rowdy and cheerful competition, especially as audience members are encouraged to shout at one another. At the screening I attended, Interfilm lackeys in DPMO ("Don't Piss Me Off") baseball caps officiated, exhorting viewers to new heights of button-pushing. "C'mon guys!" they shouted repeatedly.

In the movie's press packet, Interfilm's CEO and president Bob Bejan asserts that, "Interactive motion pictures provide a group activity and a social interaction unequaled in any other entertainment forum." In my mind, yelling at strangers in a movie theater bears more similarity to groupthink than to positive social interaction, and the movie's interactivity is the interactivity of the money exchange. That's life in the modern world: the home shopping network defines our idea of interactivity. The endings for regular movies are chosen by focus groups; that process is simply brought into the open here.

This is not to say that interactive movies can't be fun. "Mr. Payback" is mildly and mindlessly entertaining. The plots are all the same and all cheesily trite, but because of the nature of the enterprise, that's not really the point.

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