By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 6, 2009 at 9:09AM
Juan Carlos Pineiro's "Second Skin" borrows from several contemporary movie traditions. As a portrait of hardcore online gamers, it has elements of sci-fi and futurism in its vision of an entire society based in the digital realm. But people devoted to staying up all night on a "World of Warcraft" binge exist in modern times, cutting themselves off from a larger universe that still exists beyond the computer screen. Thus, "Second Skin" also belongs in the addiction genre, closely examining the boundaries between hobby and dangerous obsession. On the non-ideological front, the documentary is also partially a form of machinima, that intriguing new cinema-gaming hybrid of narratives crafted from the engines used for virtual worlds.
These multiple dimensions of "Second Skin" mean there's a lot worth checking out about it. Pineiro suggests that the foundations of civilization naturally emerge from a networked engagement with alternate reality. The players devoted to pursuing massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) develop their personas from scratch, and many treat this process as a dream world. A self-described "narcoleptic fat guy" becomes a powerful warrior, striking down dragons and other magical beasts with the ease of natural born swordsman - or the click of a mouse. Couples form online relationships that blossom into physical bonds. Alliances turn into long-term friendships.
Of course, there's something inherently creepy about this degree of gaming intensity. It has roots in cyberpunk literature and became elevated to mainstream consciousness with the advent of "The Matrix": If we give ourselves over to a machine-based way of life, at what point to the machines begin to control us? Many of Pineiro's subjects risk their livelihoods to stay plugged in. It's their right and privilege, of course, but like any indulgence, a danger lies in its extreme manifestations. The idea of a gamer's rehab might sound comical in a fictional context, but there's nothing funny about those enrolled in such a program in "Second Skin," where we learn that a woman's son committed suicide after growing isolated by his addiction.
While her story provides the movie with its darkest moment, "Second Skin" avoids exclusively focusing on the pratfalls of MMORPG culture. Pineiro creates a broad canvas with numerous characters, sometimes overdoing it with too many stories at once, but he's more than competent at surveying the personalities drawn to the perks of a non-physical existence. While he avoids objective judgement, the movie implicitly criticizes the extremely detached lives that players tend to lead. The unreleased documentary "Frag" showcases the drug-fueled madness of competitive multiplayer gamers engaged in first person shooter competitions, but the people in "Second Skin" seem dangerously under-motivated, perhaps incapable of situating their hobby in the larger context of other responsibilities. Everything revolves around the pixel.
The movie could have benefited from a trip beyond this obvious factor to explore the precise motives behind that kind of an insular existence, but at least it starts the conversation. Pineiro incorporates plenty of visual flair, literally placing us in the MMORPG worlds with animated sequences that look majestic or superficial, depending on how much you buy into the notion that online gaming provides authentic escapism. But to these players, it provides far more than that. It becomes "a place to get more intimate," as one character suggests, a way of accessing "the internal person." Such spiritual ramifications might sound frightening to twenty-first century viewers, constantly forced to adapt to technological intrusions. But audiences of "Second Skin" are no less culpable. As we watch a screen depiction of individuals glued to another screen, the addiction becomes universal.
[Editor's Note: "Second Skin" is the third installment of reviews spotlighting the Summerfest series on SnagFilms - which is the parent company of indieWIRE. Previous reviews include "45365" and "The Entrepreneur".]