Monday, September 8, 2014

A Long Trip to the Past: The Angry Video Game Nerd Movie (review)

For the better part of a decade, James Rolfe has been entertaining the YouTube generation with his Angry Video Game Nerd character. Riffing on the foibles of classic games with strings of cusses that could make a sailor blush, Rolfe has developed an international following and is a bona fide internet celebrity. It's this celebrity that enabled Rolfe to generate $325,000 through crowd funding in order to pursue his dream of making a feature length film. The resulting Angry Video Game Nerd Movie is a competently constructed film that ultimately suffers from uneven pacing and a run time that stretches about twenty minutes too long.

The Short
+a well crafted film with surprisingly good special effects
+decent fan service with a ton of cameos
+clearly a labour of love

-uneven pacing and tone 
-runs a bit too long
-non-fans will have a hard time latching on


The Long

Opening with a montage of fans requesting an angry review of the infamous Atari 2600 game E.T., a game so bad that it's rumoured two million unsold copies are buried in the Nevada desert, The Nerd (James Rolfe) is horrified to discover that his rants are leading to spikes in sales for terrible games as people want to discover just how bad they actually are. Egged on by his camera-man/manager Cooper (Jeremy Suarez), The Nerd agrees to review E.T. if they can find the mythical resting place of the unsold copies. In need of funding, Mandi (Sarah Glendening), a shill for greedy game producer Cockburn Incorporated, offers to pay for the expedition if The Nerd agrees to review the recently produced Eee Tee 2 - a game that is purposely designed to be even worse than the original. The ensuing adventure involving government cover-ups, Area 51, and a God with the power to unmake the universe by rotating a satellite dish on his head, is all expectedly hammy given the source material.

I felt that the film was constantly struggling within itself - employing action and comedy in equal measure but with little regard for pacing and failing to overlap the genres sufficiently to make for a true action-comedy. Compared to the web series which is a rapid fire string of jokes and obscenities, the movie is forced to dedicate time to exposition and has a hard time weaving in the gags. That said, there are a few solid laughs that mostly come from playing up The Nerd's anachronisms. A take on a modern online game played on an old Commodore 64 is a particular standout. Less enjoyable were the hum-drum chase scenes and exceedingly long (15 minutes plus) rampage of Las Vegas a la Godzilla. These moments fail to build tension and consequently fail as stand-alone action sequences. The movie feels right where the action and comedy overlap - a play on the trope of exploding boxes and breaking glass in car chases is fantastic - but these moments are infrequent. At nearly two hours long, you can't help but feel that leaving a few things on the editing floor have made for a more enjoyable viewing experience.

The obvious audience for The Angry Video Game Nerd Movie is the pre-existing fans of the web series but I wonder if they will fully appreciate what's on offer. Aside from a few episodes, The Nerd has never really needed to share screen time and a back story for the character has never been fleshed out. Seeing The Nerd out of his basement and interacting with the world might be a bit jarring. Personally, I found the moments where The Nerd discusses women and love (summed as "nerds before birds") to be forced. On the other hand, a healthy dose of YouTube personalities make cameos and the sprinkling of recognizable faces should delight. Unfortunately, non-fans will likely miss out on most of these cameos and will have hard time relating to the flat supporting characters. That said, the cast does a good job of chewing into their lines and I don't think the film pretends that its characters are anything but ingredients from the stock shelf.

Given the extended action sequences and limited budget, I was quite impressed by the quality of the special effects. Using a combination of miniatures and computer generated graphics, Rolfe clearly has an understanding of technique and an eye for translating big ideas to the silver screen without breaking the bank. Although I found it tedious in terms of pacing, several shots of the destruction of Las Vegas looked like they could have just as easily been from the latest summer blockbuster instead of a small independent. Moments like these make it easy to forgive the few effects that fall flat. Complementing the visual effects is solid sound editing that rarely misses a beat and further proves Rolfe knows what he's doing on the technical end. Capped by a solid score that amps up the familiar Angry Video Game Nerd theme through an orchestral rendition, the movie feels complete and definitely exhibits a sheen that is missing from many small budget films.

It's tough to recommend The Angry Video Game Nerd Movie to people who aren't already fans of the web series or aren't at least familiar with Rolfe's work. Gamers will appreciate the steady string of cameos by familiar YouTube personalities and fans will no doubt relish the in-jokes and callbacks to the series, but the uninitiated will probably have a hard time latching on. It's not that the plot isn't cohesive, it's just that it's not all that captivating despite its zany qualities. I applaud Rolfe for realizing his dream, and kudos must be given for the craftsmanship that went into it, but I just can't give a wholehearted recommendation.