Sometimes a movie drops that you know is intended for the widest audience possible. These often take the form of a drama like 2019’s Astronaut, a romance like 2019’s Ode to Joy, or a comedy like 2020’s Palm Springs. There’s no prerequisite to enjoy any of these three films and that opens the door to a variety of people. Then there are films like 2019’s Parasite, 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2020’s Howard, 2020’s We Are Little Zombies, or – most comparable – 2015’s Kung Fury. Each one of these requires a deeper well of knowledge about either the subject matter, production materials, or genre in order to fully grasp what the creators intend. This is what you need to consider before you dive into co-writer/co-director Scott Conditt’s and Jeremy Tremp’s Max Reload and the Nether Blasters, a full-on smorgasbord of gamer references built around a 1980’s vibe tucked inside a fairly modern tale. If you’re in the mood for a film with the baddest use of the Power Glove this side of 1989’s The Wizard, pour yourself a nice glass of Bawls, adjust your IW-J20 to a comfortable position, and strap in for a battle for the ages.
When the trio comprised of gamer/game designer Max Jenkins (Tom Plumley) and his friends Liz (Hassie Harrison) and Reggie (Joey Morgan) aren’t raiding digital dungeons, they are working at video game reseller Fallout Games. Late one night and while alone in the store, Max discovers someone dropped a box off with a long-believed lost cartridge of 8-bit game Nether Dungeon. What he doesn’t realize is the stranger who dropped it off is the Harbinger (Richard Lippert) and he’s chosen Max as the next contestant in an incredible fight of good vs. evil.
By the conclusion of Max Reload, I was consumed by a series of questions the film couldn’t answer. Given the numerous faces audiences will no doubt recognize — Lin Shaye (There’s Something About Mary), Martin Kove (Cobra Kai), Greg Grunberg (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Joseph D. Reitman (Use Me), Kevin Smith (Jay & Silent Bob Reboot) — you’d think that I’d want to begin there, wondering how such a group of talent was pulled into Conditt and Tremp’s Kickstarter project from 2017. Instead, I’m inclined to wonder if the film is inspired by a mix of 1957’s The Seventh Seal and 1984’s The Last Starfighter — two films which saw a protagonist use gaming for either survival or combat selection. I wonder if the F/X used to denote nether-possession is in any way inspired by 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China and if the creature designs borrow from the classic Wolfenstein series progeny Doom. I would certainly ask if the choice of using Nintendo-based hardware — NES Zapper, Power Glove, and Super Scope — was a purposeful means of continuing the retro theme inherent in Max Reload or if opting for more current tech was more costly and, thus, avoided. One cannot watch Max Reload and not appreciate the obvious thought and care that went into the art direction, set decoration, costume design, and art department as each detail, small and large, coalescing into an absolute love-letter to the artform.
Max Reload is a very specific kind of niche film, one which EoM editor Crystal Davidson described as “toke and play,” but I’d argue that it’s less the Highlife variety and more the gamer-centric kind, the kind where gamers old enough to have played ColecoVision, Atari, and Nintendo’s original gaming system appreciate more pixels, smooth mapping, and greater range of play, yet acknowledge that without the 8-bit era of gaming, what people play today wouldn’t exist. Much like those early styles of games, Max Reload truly requires no background knowledge to enjoy on a surface-level. The story is, even at its most convoluted, still straight-forward; the performances are just slightly over the top, in line with almost satirical comedic styles; and the rules of the narrative (visually and story beats) remain in lockstep with the visual design. In short, you don’t have to know that Morgan’s Reggie is fighting guns akimbo with two modified NES Zappers because the tool itself is irrelevant as long as it works. Put simply, no one in the audience is required to be a master gamer to track the action or understand the mythology, making the experience completely plug-and-play.
As much fun as the film is, it runs into problems in a few key areas: overuse of exposition and beating the audience over the head with the teamwork message. In not just one, but two extended cutscenes, the audience is given an info dump about two significant points of information in order to understand what comes next. The first sets up Grunberg’s Eugene Wylder and the coveted Nether Dungeon cartridge, but it’s information the characters clearly know well. Sure, it’s favorable for the audience to learn the information as set-up for later, except, within the rules of the film, it’s superfluous for anyone in the scene. Thus, it feels out of place within the greater context of the film. The second cutscene fits within greater context as it offers information for both the characters and audience that is useful in understanding the supernatural elements of the film first introduced in the cold open; however, it drags the momentum of the narrative to a slow crawl until it’s complete. Up to the point of both cutscenes and after, the film’s pacing is solid, offering detours which lay out interpersonal conflicts, enhance subtext, and introduce side-characters. The second bit is far more subjective in nature, but the lengths the narrative goes to highlight how Max, and his idol Eugene, are not just talented gamers and designers, but egotistical assholes, borders on excessive to the point of disliking both characters. It’s fine if the audience bears no goodwill for Eugene; he’s not the hero. It just takes so long for Max to learn his lesson that the desire to rage quit him (and only him) grows more pressing with each passing minute. On the other side of things, the way Conditt and Tremp wrote and present the characters of Liz and Reggie is superb, with strong performances from Harrison and Morgan bringing them to life. Liz is neither written nor portrayed as a sex object, direction not once slipping into the male gaze, and Reggie being more heart than comic relief, the oft resting point for any “best friend” in this type of comedy. So where the pacing and characterization dips in some areas, Max Reload more than makes up for it in others.
Whether you’re nostalgic for the days of yore, itching for the latest hardware release so you can increase the power of your gaming station, or you’re totally fine being labeled a casual, Max Reload and the Nether Blasters offers some low-grade, high-stakes fun. Wisely, Conditt and Tremp don’t rely on procession of faces to make the film work and its core group of Plumley, Harrison, Morgan, and Grunberg bear the responsibility well. Word to the wise, just like some end credits in games feature additional info amid the names and titles, make sure to stick around after the movie proper is complete. There’re a few extra scenes, and even some bloopers, that make the extra time worth it.
For more information, head to the official Max Reload and the Nether Blasters website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.