Ben X review

Ben X review

Ben-X is a 2007 film about an autistic boy who’s addicted to MMPORGs (massive multiplayer online roleplaying games). He gets bullied at school (other kids pull down his trousers and show his noogle on YouTube, nick his mobile phone and force him to swallow ecstasy). Archlord – an online roleplaying game where he is a respected prince – gives him his only safe place to retreat to.

Ben’s online backup in this virtual world is Scarlite. In the game she’s constantly by his side, a princess to his prince, his character’s healer. Scarlite is the only friend Ben X has, but he’s never met the real person behind the princess. Who is Scarlite? She represents everything that’s good about his life – so what would happen if he were ever to meet her in The Real?

One really nice thing about this film is its astute and sensitive handling of gaming. MMPORGs are among the most extreme form of gaming invented so far, due to their immersive and addictive qualities. They’re basically time sinks, ideal for someone who wants to run away from life for a few hours and go live somewhere else. Ultimately pointless, sure, but involving and addictive from the start.

And Ben-X does a great job of handling the world of the MMPORG. It creates cut scenes from an online roleplaying game, Archlord, that smacks of uber-MMPORG WarCraft… and, more interestingly, handles the cross-reality blurring of boundaries very deftly. As Ben (played by Timmermans) treats his real world as a virtual battle where basic life skills must be earned and learned and adversaries must be conquered, the game’s filters overlay onto the film itself in a way that is visually sophisticated, witty and convincing.

One word of warning, though: Ben-X is belgian/dutch. Yes, a foreign film. With dutch subtitles. It was entered for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ in the 2007 Academy Awards and failed to receive a nomination, which really ain’t fair, because it’s quality stuff. And because it’s belgian, one of the joys in viewing is deciphering the creatively erratic subtitling. Seriously. Wow. Every now and then, you feel they’ve invented a whole new language there. The thing to remember is that the occasionally puzzling subtitles are actually an extra treat. Subtitled foreign films grip harder than dubbed ones because nothing’s been diluted for you, you get the whole raw thing.

You may be wondering if this film is geeky, considering the subject matter. It is. Hugely. On the surface. The main actor has decked his computer out with painted polystyrene foam to look like an alien mountain, and even the film’s title is a reference to the l33t version of the Dutch phrase “(ik) ben niks”, meaning “(I) am nothing”.

There’s also drugs. And existentialism. And the soundtrack contains the musical talents of Praga Khan, Lords Of Acid, Arno, dEUS, Liam Chan and Sigur Ros.

Finally, it is based on the true story of a belgian boy who hid from reality in online roleplaying games and eventually died by suicide due to school bullying.

If you liked Pi and Requiem for a Dream, two intense non-mainstream films that pride themselves on building an unbelievably tense and addictive atmosphere, then Ben-X will be another film to add to your life’s collection. Played grittily and shot starkly, music and subject matter and fine direction by Nic Balthazar combine to make a film that piles on one nail-biting moment after another, drawing you in and leaving you chewing your lip as you wonder what the outcome of the bullying and retreat from life will be. Will Ben-X take down the bullies in an orgy of panicked violence? Will he take his own life?

You’ll have to watch the film to find out. Add it to your list.

Editorial note: Director Nic Balthazar has said he’s got plans to remake this film for american audiences. That’s all very nice, and we’re sure it will still be great, but do yourself a favour and see it now. How it was meant to be seen. Buy it here by clicking on the shopping cart: Buy Ben-X.