Trends are entirely cyclical. What was once deemed out of date becomes retro, reabsorbed into the lexicon of society, often repurposed into something new. It’s not just clothes (ex. tie dye and bell bottoms), music (ex. vinyl and cassettes), or oral/written language (ex. tea and woke), but the objects we engage with. It’s not just beings propelled by a sentimental need for yesteryear, it’s often finding a new appreciation for what once was. Sometimes this takes shape in the form of toy-like vinyl totems made by Funko and sometimes it’s using the sounds of generations past to make new music like Fitz & the Tantrums did with their 2010 album Pickin’ Up the Pieces. In the case of director/co-writer Martin Owen’s Max Cloud, it means tapping into the joy of 16-bit gaming in all its weird violent glory. With a synth score, spot-on costuming, and production design, you’ll feel like you’ve literally been dropped into your favorite side-scroller in Owen and co-writer Sally Collett’s (Killers Anonymous) Tron-meets-Jumanji sci-fi comedy romp.
It’s 1990 Brooklyn and Sarah (Isabelle Allen) would rather spend her time playing her most recent console game, “Max Cloud,” than leave the house, much to the chagrin of her father Tony (Sam Hazeldine). After a recent shellacking about her gaming habits, Sarah laments a desire to live a life playing games, unaware that her words were noticed by a recently discovered Space Witch (Jason Maza) inside the game. Without warning, Sarah finds herself within the body of Chef Jake (Elliot Langridge), fighting alongside Max Cloud (Scott Adkins) against the forces of Heinous. With no continues or replays, it’s going to take all her skills and a little help from her friend Cowboy (Franz Drameh) to make it out of there without getting derezzed for good.
Before digging in, a photosensitivity warning regarding Max Cloud:
In the opening sequence and in several others throughout the film, flashing lights are featured prominently. Just like video games past and present, if you are in any way sensitive to strobing of any kind, you may want to be wary before starting Max Cloud.
Another, less serious, warning, is that Max Cloud is *exactly* what you’d expect from a film with this premise. It’s schlock of the highest order and that is, trust me, a compliment. Owen and Collett construct a narrative that taps that nostalgia button, while the execution of the narrative is modern as hell. So much so, that part of the reason Sarah is sucked into the game is to address certain misogynistic tendencies of the game’s hero. In so doing, not only does Sarah, our protagonist, learn a lesson about living a life solely focused on gaming by way of going on an electronic adventure, but the characters themselves learn a life lesson as well. This is what makes Cloud more similar to something like Tron (1982) than Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) (a film series so recent that it’s likely the first, possibly only, comparison to pop into audiences’ heads) as NPCs are given full stories, reactions, and a bit of autonomy. For the unaware, games of that era are designed on-rails, meaning that the game progresses in a specific way along a specific, undeviating path. A significant departure from the sandbox design of most modern games which allow the player to explore the world of the game outside the central storyline. By removing the more restrictive elements inherent in video games’ more on-rails design, Cloud is more free to play around within the space of the gaming world. What’s this mean? It means that while Max begins the film as the type of ultra-masculine braggart you’d expect of games similar to side-scroller Final Fight (released 1989), competitive fighter Street Fighter II (released 1991), or third-person shooter Doom (1993), Owen and Collett create opportunities for the rails to come off a la Tron to expand beyond the stereotype. This allows Scott Adkins to explore a more comedic side audiences have seen glimpses of in the Debt Collector films, while also kicking all kinds of ass. Allow this third, also-less serious, warning: Max Cloud looks like it’s for kids but it’s not: the violence in our remembered childhood games might seem absent of gore until they’re given a realistic presentation. I’m just saying that Mike Haggar swinging a sword at his enemies looks very different when translated from 16-bit to the real world. It’s, you know, awesome, but not particularly kid friendly. And based on a throwaway line delivered beautifully by Adkins, the script knows it, too.
As mentioned before, Cloud is firmly aware of the visual and auditory language of the 16-bit era. The set decoration of Sarah’s room by Rachel Mathewson (The Nerve) includes not one, but two The Karate Kid (1984) posters, a bean bag chair for gaming (if you know, you know), and even a translucent light-up phone (the dream for any child of the 80s/90s). Inside the gaming world, though, is where Tony Noble’s (Moon) production design really carries forward the notion of a 16-bit world made real. If the game is awash in neon pinks and blues with hard line shapes making up the hallways and cross paths, then so is the set of Max’s ship. Essentially, the other-worldness of our favorite sci-fi games (1994’s Super Metroid or 1994’s Earthworm Jim) is wonderfully captured, even if that means the various locations look like rejects from the set of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Don’t take the sense of a low budget to mean low quality as it’s all part of the appeal and something which is easy to feel endeared toward so long as you grew up on these games.
This is where the Cloud runs into trouble.
If you didn’t grow up on these games, then the simplicity-meets-absurdity of the narrative careens from eye-rollingly camp bad into just bad. The performances which are on the mark BIG trade campy for trash. The presentation of fight sequences enacted with the appropriate 16-bit stiffness of a button masher or the side-dodging attack moves of boss fight lose their charm and come across as stilted and uninspired. The fact that the bulk of the film does seem like kid-friendly fare a la We Can Be Heroes (2020) but then engages in some PG-13 acts of violence does also create a problem as the film is largely goofy as hell, generating a sense of stupid fun, but then it chops someone’s head off and kicks it down a hallway.
By and large, Max Cloud delivers on its promise. If you go into this film expecting anything else, honestly, you’ve only got yourself to blame on this one. The conceit is written all over the packaging. And when you get a premise like this one with a cast as stacked as it is — Adkins, Dramah, John Hannah (ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel), and Tommy Flanagan (Netflix’s Wu Assassins) — (who are clearly having a ball, mind you) you’re going to have a good time. As long as you keep in mind that that’s all this is, a good time. So make yourself a bowl of your favorite gaming snack, twist off a bottle of Bawls, and get yourself comfy. The universe isn’t going to save itself.
**No special features included on the home release.**
Head to the official Max Cloud website for more information.
Available on VOD and digital December 18th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD January 19th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.