Monday, July 28, 2014

My Review of The Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

Of all the pop-culture celebrations going on in San Diego last week, the premiere of James Rolfe's comedic epic was one of the easiest to miss.  A huge line was gathered outside the Reading Theater, but some of them were there to see the Hercules premiere, while others came for Mazerunner.  It was only when I talked to people in line that I found a good portion were there for the Nerd, and some of them, too, were worried whether they got the wrong location.  There were absolutely no signs for it outside the theater; only one inside.  I had known James Rolfe would be there, but what I did not expect was that I would see him right inside the room where the movie was shown, chatting with people individually and directing them to their seats.  It definitely felt like a very niche, indie affair.

I mention all of this, because in The Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, the emphasis is definitely on the portion before the colon.  It is feature length, and, I would say, more ambitious than any of the films Channel Awesome put out every year, but it still feels very much like the web series in a lot of regards.  Its production values alternate between delightfully; at least in part intentionally cheesy, and just a bit too much so.  I won't spoil the specifics, but there is a joke with a completely obvious hoaxed action shot, and it's funny...less so when it's repeated several more times in a short period.  Then there's an issue with its use (or lack thereof) of certain trademarks, which again, I won't spoil, but you can't miss it.  Fight scenes frequently seem..."off", in some way or another.  The movie, like the series, is also almost exclusively a comedy, and while this year's surprise hit, the The Lego Movie, managed some very touching scenes, despite being very surreal, nerdy, and gag-ridden, here any scene that might have come across as sentimental generally comes off instead as a parody of sentimental scenes.

Yet even if it's something of a one-note running joke, within those limits, The Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie delights.  The story of the Nerd, having become famous for reviewing games in a hyperbolically caustic manner, caving in to peer pressure to review ET, inadvertently setting him up in a date with destiny, spans through more comedic potential than anyone would expect.  There's some nice satire of the self-destructive ironic fandom in hipster subculture, and the laughably transparent attempts of big business to cater to such subculture, and the film never misses an opportunity to throw in some slapstick, sight gags, and humorous subversion of action movie conventions.  The extreme scatological conventions that the Nerd was infamous for at their height are thankfully in moderation here.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is not that this movie is full of original characters, but how well they work.  Almost immediately, the Nerd is coexisting with his new trainee fanboy, and a sweet, if manipulative corporate mole, looking to use their quest to sell her own game, and soon a whole crew of cliched but hilarious military hotheads (think Beavis and Butthead Do America) join the farce, but instead of seeming like unwelcome diversions in what we expect to be the Nerd's movie, every character serves to strengthen the others.  You can tell James Rolfe is every bit the film buff he claims to be, because the acting and directing in this film are generally brilliant, with people's timing and tone in reaction to each other being airtight.  Particularly funny are James' interchanges with his costar, the former's stubborn, analytical nerd dueling with the latter's wild-eyed, fringe-minded goofball to mock both sides' extremes.  Meanwhile, the villain, an increasingly crippled and grumpy old warhorse, is practically a comedy act unto himself.

It all comes together brilliantly as the Nerd's decision to debunk an old gaming legend, or else reap the punishment of doubting it, sets him on an inadvertent collision course with the agenda of skunkworks military projects.  What initially seems like a misunderstanding (the military hears Rolfe's documenting of an alleged "E.T."-related thing happening some time ago in the New Mexico desert, which can be taken as referencing the Roswell Incident), soon proves to be much more, and soon, after a near fatal run-in with the military, the heroes fall in with an eccentric Bob Lazar expy turned video game-themed survivalist, who enlists them in his secret war against Area 51.  Things just get crazier from there; perhaps a bit too meta, but you'll be laughing too much to care, and it all makes for the sort of silliness that James's fans have come to expect.  And then, at the end of it all, people do, in fact, get the E.T. review they waited for; in the Nerd's signature angry, yet insightful way.

For the average moviegoer, this film will be somewhat funny, but a great deal will probably be lost on them.  It's delving into subjects that are a bit too "nerdy", which is practically the point.  But everyone who's familiar with James's prior work and likes it, will consider this worth the wait.  Among those of us who consider ourselves nerds, there are few better feelings than that of being in a room full of people who are laughing at the same things as we are, and this delivered that in a way that rivals even The Avengers.

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