Review: 'Virtually Heroes' is a meta-mess of a video game comedy at Sundance Midnights
PARK CITY - Look, if I ran a film festival, I'd take every opportunity that arose to invite Roger Corman to attend, too. He's Roger Corman. That's awesome.
But when I think of the midnight movie selections at Sundance, I think of genuinely edgy or interesting or ambitious movies. Every festival that does midnight movies does it differently. Sundance's midnights are not the same as Toronto's midnights. At all. I expect a certain something from the midnights here, and I'm not sure I get what the programmers saw in "Virtually Heroes," a video game/action movie mash-up that features Mark Hamill in a supporting role and that has Corman's name on it to boot.
There's a big difference between making a movie that is about gaming and making a movie that is an adaptation of a game. Matt Yamashita's screenplay does seem to have a real understanding of the mechanics of video games, the places where the artificial nature of the world of the game simply gives out. It's not a bad script, but it does lay out its biggest jokes early and then it sort of hammers those points over and over. If this had been a short, I think it might have been sort of great. There are just enough good ideas here for about 20 minutes of run time, but in a 90 minute film. Even then, I have some issues with the filmmaking itself. While I think Yamashita's script demonstrates some first-hand experience with gaming, the direction by G.J. Echternkamp is tin-eared almost from start to finish.
I know. Harsh words. And I'm sorry. I really wanted to like this, and I tried cutting it some slack just because I think it's fun that we're starting to see movies that have to deal with the fact that there's a whole chunk of humanity now that is addicted to this virtual reality software that we call "gaming" these days. I think it's not just a fun development, but maybe even important. After all, the point of cinema is to enable an artistic conversation about the human condition, isn't it? If you believe that film is more than just tits and stuff blowing up, then it's not such a stretch to say that if a significant portion of society is enjoying something in common, then films about that thing seem like a natural part of the way pop culture works.
So far, there have been a lot of bad gaming films. I think films adapted from games have been uniformly dreadful. When the best things you can point at in a particular genre are "Silent Hill" and "Mortal Kombat," there is a problem. And films about gamers? Even worse. There's a Fred Savage road movie and "Wargames" and… what? "Hackers"? It seems on some level that films and games work at such cross purposes that there is no logical intersect. Maybe the people chasing that great gaming movie are chasing something that doesn't exist and that won't exist.
Basically, this tells the story of Books (Robert Baker) and Nova (Brent Chase), two American soldiers in Vietnam who begin the movie in media res, right smack dab in the midst of a massive killing spree. They rampage for a while, trade wisecracks, Nova teabags a few dead bodies, and then they screw up. They're both killed…
… and the game resets to the same place the film began. Because Books and Nova are video game characters playing some unnamed war game that Books begins to realize is not terribly well-designed. There is a very shallow mythology to the situation they're caught in, with poorly-defined enemies, missions that make no logical sense. There's a girl who Books keep catching up to, a photojournalist named Jennifer Hardaway (Katie Savoy), but every time he almost has a romantic moment with her, she is once again plucked away and carried off to some peril that he has to rescue her from. In addition, Books is starting to see a mysterious monk-like figure show up at the edge of things occasionally, a glitch with a purpose, and Books can't help but question his place in the game and in the world at large.
There are some good ideas in there. And there might even be a fun version of this movie. But I just never felt like Echternkamp got a hold on how to get the heightened reality off the ground. That is one of the great tricks for any filmmaker, especially when trying to build a persuasive world or an immersive alternate reality. The guys who do it well, who can do it over and over on command and make it work more often than not, are typically the guys who end up making the giant spectacle movies. Tim Burton is Tim Burton because he can do it. Terry Gilliam is Terry Gilliam because he can do it but he'll probably burn down half of London and get struck by lightning in the process. James Cameron is James Cameron because we're half-convinced he films his movies on location even when they're set on other planets. And all of those guys started out doing it with no money. Joe Dante is a graduate of the exact same sort of pipeline that Corman still employs, although there were obvious differences between the Corman of the '50s and the '60s and the '70s and the Corman of the now. Different outlets for the films, different markets to try to satisfy, different budgets on different scales, different ways of making the money make sense. But at the heart of it, there's nothing that Cameron or Dante or Gilliam had at the start that Echternkamp didn't have here, but for whatever reason, I never felt like he figured out how to establish the sandbox, and so nothing that happens in it really ends up working.
Mark Hamill has an extended supporting role in the film in the middle, and he's basically playing a Yoda character but written in hyper-aware smart-ass 2012 patter. The only thing I can say about that section of the movie is that it really made me wonder what they're going to have to do to make the Luke Skywalker of any future "Star Wars" films anything but the exact thing people expect. Hamill's already played the parody version, so I'm not sure he can really go back to playing Skywalker straight. It would be like seeing Leslie Nielsen take over for Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry series after doing a bunch of Naked Gun movies.
Wait… I'd pay to see that. Never mind.
If "VIrtually Heroes" ends up on NetFlix Instant and you're remotely intrigued by the description above, it's not a painful 90 minutes. It's not overtly bad. It's not infuriating. It's just not something I'd ever watch again, and I think it fumbles its premise early and almost completely.
There are still more Sundance reviews to come, even though I am preparing to leave Utah tomorrow. It's been a really enjoyable, interesting week in the snow, and while I've written about many of the films I've enjoyed, I have yet to review the single worst thing I've seen this week. But I will. I feel it is my civic duty. It's that kind of OMFG. So keep checking in as the week wraps up.