REVIEW: Max Reload and the Nether Blasters (2020)

dir. Scott Conditt & Jeremy Tremp.

Max Jenkins (Tom Plumley) is generally happy with his lot in life: he has a cushy job at the local video game store, is climbing the national gamer rankings and his loyal friends and colleagues Lizzie (Hassie Harrison) and Reggie (Joey Morgan) have his back in both the virtual and real worlds. But when working a late shift one night a shadowy figure drops off a cardboard box containing a rare vintage console and legendary unreleased game, Nether Dungeon: the final instalment in a hugely successful 80s series. It never went on sale, every copy destroyed in a fire at the HQ of Wylde Childe Games, a company set up by local legends Eugene Wylde and Barton Grabowski. Max is at first elated to play the lost title and share it with the world, but it soon becomes apparent that it may be part of a much larger and more ancient series of battles which could take over the world… unless he and his friends find a way to defeat it.

Directors Conditt and Tremp immerse audiences in the world of gaming via various visual styles to great effect: we first meet Max, Lizzie and Reggie as their onscreen personas in a World of Warcraft-style RPG; Max’s journeys around town are shown in a retro pixelated fashion; Eugene’s backstory is told as an animated interlude; and in a nice comedic call-back one battle also takes place in a VR setting with the trio of friends dressed as their gaming avatars – full beards, elvish ears and all. There’s also a delightful supporting role for Kevin Smith as the virtual reality-obsessed manager of the store, who throughout the action is in his office happily immersed in various VR scenarios. 

The film brings together modern and retro gaming, showing a clear affection for it as an artform, but also touches on the more unpleasant aspects of gamer culture. Competition for its own sake is shown to be a destructive force in the lives of the protagonists, personified in the figure of The Harbinger who threatens worldwide destruction. A coding battle between Max and Eugene results in a security breach, which neither of them notice while preoccupied with their own rivalry. And Max blames Lizzie for the Nether Dungeon getting out into the world because of her previous relationship with rival gamer Seth – a suspect attitude that ignores his own responsibility. It is perhaps telling that it takes a near world-ending disaster for Max to realise his friends have been propping him up all along, and that he maybe shouldn’t continue turning up to work late and diminishing their contributions to their gaming quests. 

Ultimately Max Reload is a jaunty, feel-good affair where friendship triumphs over adversity fairly easily, and though it doesn’t delve too deeply into its characters or subject matter it’s still a massively enjoyable adventure: more a skilfully-made casual game than an in-depth campaign.

Melissa Cox

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