By Elias Savada.
In an attempt to meld the pc gaming world with that of modest-budget movie-making, Beta Test doesn’t score many points. Opening in 15 AMC theatres and Seattle’s SIFF Cinema Uptown (the film was shot in Seattle and Lake Forest Park, Washington) on July 22nd, this is a hybrid game movie that boggled my mind with continuity, screenplay, and acting issues.
If you’re forced into a bank robbery, could you really enter the building through an open window? Or, if you’re driving the streets of Seattle, where’s the traffic beyond a handful of cars in the middle the day? Granted, these examples are part of the film’s lackluster video game look, a diverting FPS amusement that one of its protagonists is playing and the other is the eyes on the screen. Still, it rings hollow. With computer graphics straight out of the 1990s. Also, why is there only one television commentator in all the city? Everyone must love the same channel.
Using this split live action/under-rendered graphics approach, director-writer-producer Nicholas Gyeney (under his Mirror Images Ltd banner) is mostly in under-financed mode during these gaffs, a problem that could have been solved with a better script and more experienced cast.
Born and based in the West Coast seaport city, Gyeney has built up his filmography since attending the University of Southern California’s film program, pushing out VOD-bound features since his micro-budget debut The Falling in 2006. The Terminator‘s Lance Henriksen was featured in the 2010 sci-fi drama The Penitent Man. Matt’s Chance (2013), with a where-are-they-now cast including Edward Furlong, Lee Majors, Margot Kidder, and Gary Busey, came along in 2013, self-described as a “dark dramedy regarding love, betrayal, and Matt.”
And now we have Beta Test, which combines a man-on-the-run tale with that of an agoraphobic gamer who (initially) doesn’t know he’s controlling the other person from the comfort of his living room. There are bunch of stereotypical bad folks in cybercity. Andrew Kincaid (Linden Ashby) is a powerful, sycophantic CEO of a next-big-thing gaming company called Sentinel. He has a public tiff with his top security officer Orson Creed (Manu Bennett), so the you-call-that-unhinged? executive sends some clumsy thugs to the disgruntled underling’s home, kidnaps his wife, Abbie (Sara Coates – who is thanklessly left to stand around in a corner during the film’s climax), and plops a mind-melding device on the back of his neck. Of course, the world’s premiere beta tester, Max Troy, also conveniently settled elsewhere in Seattle, gets a new real-life simulation game delivered by Sentinel at the same time. According to the sadly underwritten game, er, script, the puppet and his master start a series of ridiculous stunt-worthy missions to get Abbie back.
Max’s sidekick is a remote female technical support representative (Brandy Kopp).
When Max realizes that game and reality are the same, it’s time for a pale ale before playing, because “your life depends on it,” according to the dastardly Zane (Kevon Stover), Kincaid’s monochromatic muscleman. A two-dimensional Snidely Whiplash would have worked better opposite the film’s two Dudley Do-Rights.
The acting is stiff, a problem that a more experienced director might have solved. Australian Manu Bennett does a confused interpretation of Hugh Jackman under duress, but admirers of Starz’s Spartacus series (2010-2013) remember him as the gladiator Crixus. He was also the orc commander Azog the Defiler in Peter Jackson’s long-in-the-tooth Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014). He’s been in an out of CW’s The Arrow (2012- ) as Deathstroke. Heck, he’s even played Sinbad in a lackluster Australian feature. Laranz Tate is Max the master tester, who also picked up a producer credit on the film, while his showbiz brothers Lahmard and Larron are two of the film’s executive producers (through the trio’s Tate Men Entertainment). He’s done a lot of tv work, most recently on the NBC misfire Game of Silence (2016), but did well on Showtime’s House of Lives (2012-2016) and was terrific as Black Shawn on the awesome FX show Rescue Me (2004-2011). I see some of that cockiness in his role here.
The film’s dreary climax is filled with Creed’s swashbuckling adventures choreographed against a group of standard-issue stunt thugs and swirling camerawork. All the action seems to take place in a make-believe state, where only the cast members are present. Keep the passers-by and kids and workers and the more than 3.5 million people who live in the 15th largest metro area out of the frame. And that agoraphobia? It gets cured quicker than you can say “really?”
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).