Let’s say I told you that I saw a movie that wasn’t just disappointing, but actually left me seething by the end credits, and then I told you that its title was Max Reload and the Nether Blasters. Your first response would probably be, “Wait, is that a real movie?” And after verifying that it was, indeed, a real movie with actors, sets, etc., then your next question would probably be, “Well, with a title like that, what did you expect?” Which would be an entirely fair question.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from a movie titled Max Reload and the Nether Blasters, to be honest. Probably something along the lines of a lower budget Stranger Things, what with the ’80s pop culture nostalgia. Or maybe a scrappy low-budget gem like Turbo Kid, where its corny premise and production limitations turn out to be charming strengths. In any case, I was not expecting a movie that I finished solely out of sheer spite, lest it could claim that it had defeated me.
So what’s it about, this Max Reload and the Nether Blasters? It’s about a boy named Max Jenkins who loves video games. He plays them all the time, and when he’s not playing them, he’s creating them for his grandpa. And when he’s not doing that, he works at a video game store with his best friends, Liz and Reggie, while trying to stay on the good side of his boss, Chuck. Max is particularly obsessed with old school video games, much to his friends’ chagrin, and especially the Nether series of fantasy games released back in the ’80s.
So when a cardboard box containing an old Colecovision and the final Nether game — which was thought to be lost forever — mysteriously falls into his possession, Max can’t believe his luck. The game turns out to be everything he ever wanted, right up until the moment it unleashes an ancient curse that threatens to damn the entire world. Unless, that is, Max can team up with his hero, the game’s original creator, to save the day. Unfortunately, Max is a conceited jerk, so it’ll be a miracle if anyone teams up with him to save anything, much less the world.
That’s the first of the movie’s problems: unlikable protagonists. Max is selfish and perfectly willing to ignore his friends during their online gaming sessions in order to seek his own glory. Reggie is a spineless cliché as the overweight, pizza-loving friend who tries to pass himself off as the Samwise to Max’s Frodo (yes, he actually says that) while Liz is a perfect “edgy girl” cliché herself (though of course she has a crush on Max, of which he’s totally oblivious). But it remains a mystery throughout the movie why they stay friends with Max given how he treats them. As for Max’s hero, the enigmatic Eugene Wylder, he’s just as arrogant and self-absorbed as Max, and naturally, lives at home with his mom. (Yet another cliché.)
The cast seems to be doing the best they can with the script as written, but the script does them no favors whatsoever. I guess there’s supposed to be some depth to Max and Eugene’s relationship, with the realization of their mutual arrogance intended to help them learn valuable life lessons and become better people who actually respect their friends — or something like that. Which brings us to the movie’s second problem: it thinks it’s way more clever than it actually is.
There are plenty of clips on YouTube from movies and TV shows that feature characters spouting all manner of silly, nonsensical technobabble. My favorite is a clip from NCIS titled “Two Idiots, One Keyboard” in which two characters battle a hacker by typing on the same keyboard while saying things like “dump him on the other side of the router” and “this is DOD Level 9 encryption.” Max Reload is like 100 minutes of that, with characters dropping video game and programming references left and right.
Characters argue over who’s more iconic, John Carmack or Shigeru Miyamoto; belittle each other’s SEO skills; drool over virtual reality gear; and brag about embedding worms, stealing email lists, and porting games to mobile platforms (where no emulator is required). This culminates in an honest-to-goodness programming battle between Max and Eugene that involves laying down fire escapes, rerouting bypass kernels, and complaints that somebody never “shielded the breach with a DNS and IP encryption so that the bots wouldn’t detect the reroute source.” Max Reload contains all of this, not because these terms mean anything (they do in the real world), add anything to the storytelling, or work as meaningful dialog, but because they sound “cool” and appropriately “tech-y.”
If Max Reload was intended to be some sort of celebration of video games, then the cynical and haphazard way it employs the aforementioned language makes it a failure. Of course, other movies have slung technobabble left and right and gotten away with it — Hackers being the iconic example — but they possess one thing that Max Reload sorely lacks: panache. (And no, Kevin Smith’s eyeroll-inducing cameo as the VR-obsessed Chuck does not count as such.)
When our heroes finally confront the big bad, it should be a cathartic moment in which friendship is affirmed and dreams of (virtual) glory are realized. Instead, we get a hackneyed battle featuring characters we don’t care about doing something that we also don’t care about. But don’t worry, Max does take a moment to ogle Liz’s bust-accentuating wizard costume, thus giving us one more “awful nerd” cliché.
Which is a crying shame because Max Reload and the Nether Blasters had elements of something fun, goofy, and offbeat. Something that embraced and celebrated ’80s nostalgia beyond token references (one character rides a BMX bike while another drives a DeLorean) and a synthwave soundtrack that feels like someone just ticking boxes on a checklist. Instead, we get a shallow, mean-spirited movie obsessed with proving its own cleverness time and again.