The genre of the “empowered gamer” film has seemingly existed since the medium of video games first emerged. From early ur-texts like Wargames and The Last Starfighter, all the way up to modern takes like Ready Player One and the recent Jumanji movies, the idea of game-obsessed nerds saving the world through their niche mastery of otherwise frivolous pastimes has always had a certain appeal. The latest entry into the genre, Max Reload and the Nether Blasters, comes from co-directors Scott Conditt and Jeremy Trempt in their narrative feature debut. And while it has more in common with those earlier takes on the concept, it also owes a lot to the general tone of 1980s adventure comedies like Fright Night and Monster Squad. By sticking to a dedication to fun above all else, Max Reload succeeds in creating light escapist entertainment that charms.
The titular Max (played by Tom Pumley) is an affable slacker who mostly skates by in life, dedicating himself to MMOs and showing up late to his job at a video game resale shop. Max is obsessed with a series of video games from the 1980s called Nether, which were discontinued when the studio responsible for the game was burned to the ground by one of the founders. When the only copy of the lost final entry in the series mysteriously shows up at Max’s work, he is quick to stream himself playing the game and distribute the game online for other fans. Unbeknownst to Max, his actions lead to an ancient evil being released unto the world…for reasons. The movie never really slows down to explain it’s logic beyond an evil entity using games to attempt to invade, and that the more people who play the more powerful it becomes.
The rest of the film plays out fairly predictably: the disgraced developer of the Nether games (played by JJ Abrams regular Greg Grunberg) shows up to save Max and his two best friends (Hassie Harrison and Joey Morgan in winning performances), informs them of the sinister evil he hid within the video game and how much danger has now been unleashed. The forces of good gather, squabble until the stakes have reached the precise level of threat needed for the heroes then take the fight to the bad guys.
None of it is exactly groundbreaking or especially challenging; don’t expect any genre inversions or sly expectation shifting. But to some degree, that is the point. Conditt and Trempt aren’t just fans of 1980s and 1990s video games, but clearly are students of the disposable film of the same era, fluffy but enjoyable flicks that serve as enjoyable time wasters. All the hallmarks are on display: a menacing gang of bullies, slightly off-kilter older adults, dialogue thick with gaming vernacular that mostly makes sense given the context, but also is pretty much nonsense. It all just feels comfortably familiar, played with earnest affection for its own uncomplicated aims. There is an unironic computer hacking competition moment that both relishes in the sound of nonsensical keyboard strikes and serves as a bit of character study all in the same moment. It’s not so much genre-exercise as genre-worship.
It is a film that is set in the modern day, but seems squirrelly positioned at Gen-X nostalgia. The inclusion of pop nerd luminaries like Kevin Smith and the voice of Wil Wheaton is no accident, nor are the rapid-fire pop culture references that the characters spit off. It can all be a bit groan-inducing at times, especially the umpteenth time someone makes a “high score” reference, but the level of commitment from the cast always takes the material as seriously as they need to, which is to say not very. The core trio of Pumley, Harrison and Morgan seem especially locked into the kind of archetypical work asked of them here. They create a core unit of heroes that the viewer wants to see succeed, both for the fate of the world and for their interpersonal dynamics.
Everyone in the film is more or less likable, though some of Smith’s riffing in the film can be slightly more labored and schticky; a short joke where he is playing a VR game where he is playing a flasher feels especially tone deaf. But with that one exception, everyone knows what they are there to do and deliver. Grunberg and later Joseph D. Reitman play a pair of washed up developers of yesteryear with equal parts goofy energy and genuine sadness; Karate Kids’ Martin Kove plays Max’s grandfather suffering from dementia, but still attempting to show kindness to his grandson. The cast plays everything down the middle, and because of that the endless technobabble and incessant gaming jargon goes down easier. No one feels like they’re faking it or above the material, but just having fun which is infectious.
The film was made on a shoestring budget, and it certainly shows in moments, especially in special effects shots and a somewhat jarring scenery change in the final act that comes across as more cheap than epic. But Conditt and Trempt basically recognize and work through their limitations rather than against them. The film’s most interesting choice is the use of animated montages, often modeled after video game pixel art, to cut between locations. It pops up only a handful of times, and there is another extended flashback sequence that is also animated, but both feel like stylish choices that add character and feels genuinely innovative in a film that otherwise feels almost allergically opposed to breaking out of formula.
Other small touches stand out as thoughtful attentions to detail. Jesse Mitchell’s video-game inspired score both matches the subject matter and general tone of the film, and the usage of various video game paraphernalia of the 80s and 90s reminds of advertainment classic The Wizard. The whole package just holds together cohesively, even in the moments where the budget shows slightly.
The final result is unquestionably cheesy, but unabashedly so. The directors and most of the cast seem to know they are making something light and silly and escapist, and seem to even take pride in that. By coming to its identity honestly and unironically, it creates something that could be embarrassing in less deft hands and creates something endearing, even if it doesn’t really leave a lasting impression. It is slight, passing and ultimately inconsequential. But it does all that well without having any delusions of grandeur or greater stake to make. It’s just fun, and on that metric, it succeeds beyond its humble aims. It creates a fitting tribute to it’s inspirations, coming across as plucky and admirable.
Max Reload is available now on home video, on demand, and screening at select drive-ins.
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