One of the unique aspects of growing up in the 1980s (besides being able to roam free in the neighborhood after school) was the advent of video games. Sure, you could go to the arcade in the mall or the local pizza parlor and pump quarters into Pole Position, Donkey Kong, or Ms. Pac Man (my personal nemesis), but we longed for something more.
I have received a number of game systems over the years thanks to my father’s job (Pong; Bally; Odyssey2; Texas Instruments-even learning to code in BASIC), but it was the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986 that jolted me into a world I never knew existed. Suddenly there was a connection among friends, all of us attempting to accomplish the same task – defeat games without the use of the Internet, email, chat, or online play. Yes, we called each other on the phone. Yes, we spent the night at each other’s houses and played until the sun rose. Yes, we drew highly sophisticated maps and conjectured ways of defeating Ganondorf or the Mother Brain. Yes, we did eat highly caloric snacks and played quintessential 1980’s tunes. Yes, we celebrated the takedown of a game like we won the NBA Championship.
I think that’s why the new film Max Cloud brought back memories for me in a flood of music, icons, and 1980’s-era graphics. I wanted it to be a film that would evoke the geekiness and excitement of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One while adding a new layer to the world I grew up in. Sadly, it does neither.
The story itself is fairly straightforward in nature. Sarah (Isabelle Allen, Les Misérables) is a fan of the Max Cloud videogame series. While playing one day, she finds an easter egg (code for a secret item) that sends her from playing in her bedroom to being an active part of the game as Jake (Elliot Langridge), Max Cloud’s cook. Her friend Cowboy (Franz Drameh, Hereafter) looks for her and suddenly realizes that in order for Sarah to return to the land of the early 1990’s, he’s going to have to beat the game—or bye bye Sarah/Jake. Sarah’s comrades in the game consist of Rexy (Sally Collett), a somewhat shy and gregarious commander, and Max Cloud himself (Scott Adkins, Zero Dark Thirty; Doctor Strange), a vainly pretentious fighter in the vein of Buzz Lightyear, complete with references to himself in third person.
This sounds awesome! Where does the film go wrong?, you might wonder. I think it begins with the screenplay itself. There are a number of opportunities for fleshing out the characters and having the viewer connect with Sarah and Max. However, these are all brushed aside, leaving a bare-bones structure that simply cannot overcome the lack of detail. The characters simply aren’t given enough to do. I do appreciate the concept, but in this case, less is not necessarily more.
Another area of concern is the unevenness of the graphics and set quality. The video game Sarah gets pulled into is 16-bit (a la Double Dragon) and would be pretty respectable if it existed in real life. That might explain why the actual video game sets look like something one might find on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Some of the props look wonky as well, such as Rexy’s backpack blaster (it looks better in the actual game than in real life) and the helmets the characters have in case of going out into space. At the end, the final battle is of significantly higher quality, but it’s a bit jarring to see such differing graphics on the screen (think early Nintendo versus a PS5).
Even though there are some definite issues with the film, I did notice that the concept of teamwork is on grand display for the viewer. The Cowboy realizes that if he doesn’t beat the game (which he has never done), his friend dies. He can hear Sarah, so the two partner to make sure he does the best he can—even resorting to her calling out button presses so the characters will get out of a tight jam. Even her father jumps in to make a critical save of the game at the end. I’m reminded of a passage in the Bible that says, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor; for if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). Life is challenging enough as it is right now (Covid or not), so to have people around to help when the going gets tough-or even to talk to about all types of things-is important. Let us take a lesson from the Bible and video game players—we need each other.
Max Cloud is available on VOD now.