Grimmfest film review: Max Reload and the Nether Blasters (2020)
Retro vs cutting edge7
Anton Bitel | On 31, May 2021
Director: Scott Conditt, Jeremy Tremp
Cast: Tom Plumley, Hassie Harrison
Where to watch Max Reload and the Nether Blasters online in the UK: Grimmfest
Meet Max Jenkins (Tom Plumley), a young, orphaned Ferris Bueller-lookalike who lives in smalltown Middletown with his war veteran grandfather (Martin Kove) – and a talented coder whose inability to work with others has held him back from getting the sort of work in game design for which he seems born. Instead he divides his time between working at the VG store Fallout Games and online gaming with his colleagues – and only friends – Liz (Hassie Harrison) and Reggie (Joey Morgan).
A gaming session near the film’s beginning reveals all the virtues and flaws of Max – who plays under the ident “Max Reload”. He is brassy and bold and likes to tackle problems head-on, but is incapable of listening to others or of being a team player, ensuring that although this trio of MMORPG warriors certainly has its strengths, Max has a habit of undermining these by rushing rashly into mortal danger like the much meme-fied Leeroy Jenkins. It is clear that Max has lessons to learn, and that Max Reload and the Nether Blasters is going to articulate his rites of passage through the idioms of gaming.
Coming from the same directing/writing team that previously collaborated on the feature-length documentary Game Jam the Movie, Scott Conditt and Jeremy Tremp’s comedy science fantasy blurs the boundaries between gaming and reality. Even before the lost 1984 cartridge game Nether Dungeon materialises in the store and opens a portal for the ancient, power-hungry Harbinger (Richard Lippert) to challenge Max to a deadly match, some of the film’s real-world scenes are presented as in-game animation, as though to collapse the distinction between Max’s everyday experience and his online exertions. For Max, as for his VR-obsessed boss Chuck (Kevin Smith, sending up his own mega-nerd status), all of life is a game, and the obstacles that Max daily faces – like a trio of bullying computer jocks (Lukas Gage, Taylor Dahl, Ryan Harrison Riffle) – are little different from the trolls and monsters he must fight on the screen.
As Max learns to work as a team with Liz and Reggie, he must also, in a parallel narrative, reconcile the estranged designers of the original Nether Dungeon, Eugene Wylder (Greg Grunberg) and Barton Grabowski (Joseph D Reitman), so that these two very different generations of gamer geeks can unite to fight evil, with the fate of the entire world at stake – although this low-budget labour of love is always more focused on fun than jeopardy.
Max Reload and the Nether Blasters is a cheap and cheesy nostalgia-fest (even horror icon Lin Shaye shows up as Eugene’s over-doting mother). There is lots of dumb-assed toilet gaggery (especially from Smith) and hangout humour, but the film is perhaps at its most engaging in the way that it tracks how much – and how little – both gaming and gamers have changed, from Generation X at the pioneering end of home consoles to “native digital” Zoomers for whom the 1980s are just a set of goofy tropes and retro gestures.
The film too reduces its Reagan-era flashbacks to satirical VHS reportage (with bad tracking) and animated sequences – but here, as old video cartridge scenarios come to life and Max’s messianic coming of age plays out like virtual, augmented and mixed realities, everything seems like a game. Or, as Reggie puts it, “This is like a movie!” – especially like backward-looking gamer movies Beyond the Gates, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or Ready Player One, but throwing out references to all manner of other films along the way. It may be glitchily rough around the edges, but Conditt and Tremp’s film also knows exactly what it is, and affectionately revives a 1980s sense of adolescent adventure for the networked era. It even has a bloopers reel at the end…
Max Reload and the Nether Blasters is available at Grimmfest until 31st May. Book tickets here.