‘Beta Test’ (2016): Review

Movies and video games have long tried to find a way to blend the two mediums, often with mixed results. Beta Test is the latest, with an all-star gamer given a new game to try that he soon learns mirrors real world events. Beta Test opens in select theaters on July 22. This is a pre-release review.

In Seattle, regal looking Kincaid (Linden Ashby) is CEO of one of the largest video game companies in the world, Sentinel. During a televised interview, he promotes his gun control agenda, advocates for better regulations and directes the audience to play games if they really want to shoot someone. Better yet, play his. The topic moves to his top security officer, Orson Creed (Manu Bennett) who rumors say wants to take Sentinel to the military so the government can be the developers. Kincaid dismisses the rumors and says he and Creed have parted ways and wants the audience to know that he is pushing to have gaming become the truly interactive experience every player wants. Sentinel will soon be that game.

Meanwhile, in his home, Creed is watching, and he’s not happy. His wife is urging him to get ready as they are expected on a plane. She tells him she is proud of him for not being like Kincaid. Before that can really register though, a gang of thugs breaks into the house, rough up his wife and knock out Creed. They attach an odd looking microchip device into base of his neck and leave with the girl.

On the other side of town we meet video game champion and Sentinel products tester Max (Larenz Tate), who is agoraphobic and literally hasn’t left the house in two years. He receives the latest game that promises the best thing in gaming immersion. He settles in and gets his usual tech support operator on the line (Brandy Kopp) to walk him through the set up. Soon, he’s in control of the main character and he begins to play. The first mission is to infiltrate a bank and empty a safety deposit box. It’s pretty standard first person shooter stuff and he gets through with ease. What happens next is a surprise.

On the news in the next room, reports of a bank heist orchestrated by Orson Creed are being telecast, including a number of deaths. Did Max just do that? Turns out he did. The chip in Creed’s neck allows Max to literally control him. When he tries to quit, he’s given no choice and told if he doesn’t play the game, Creed’s wife will start to lose digits. And maybe worse.

Beta Test
Manu Bennett (Beta Test, 2016)

Written and directed by Nicholas Gyeney, the concept behind this is not a new one, though does it take it in a different direction. Like 2009’s Gamer, with Gerard Butler, its premise rests on our acceptance that one person can manipulate another like a character in a video game. More specifically, a first-person shooter. If Beta Test has a strength, it is that it takes the time to make that chasm-wide leap somewhat believable, attaching a thingy to the central nervous system that connects with the do-hickey that links with the whatchamacallit and into the controller. It’s about the show rather than the explanation but at least it feels, in this world, plausible. What makes this go the extra mile is the commitment to the gamer angle. In a surprising move, when Max has control of Creed, everything on his TV is a graphic representation of the world Creed sees. His house, his car, the streets, the city, the action, are all reproduced like a real FPS game. It’s a really nice touch that helps sell the story.

Beta Test
Inside the Game World (Beta Test, 2016)

That said, there are issues of course, many forced upon them by a low budget. The game Max is playing is touted as the biggest leap forward in gaming since gaming was invented, a total immersive experience that is unlike anything any gamer has ever seen or felt before. But in truth, not so much, unless the story takes place in 1998. While the effort to reproduce the real world into a gaming one should be lauded in this film, the reality is that it looks like something gamers were playing at the turn of the millennium. But letting that go, the more egregious issue is one so few movies get right when featuring gamers: make the gamer look like a gamer. Max is supposed to be an agoraphobic world champion gamer, but he lives in a bright, big home that looks like it’s his mothers. On one wall are some certificates and awards, but also a shiny Nintendo 64 and an Xbox 360 sitting in little shrines. Before he plays a game, he does a ‘routine’ where he rubs his hands on the surface of each and then slips on a pair of padded fingerless biker gloves (*sigh*), before blowing on his finger tips. It looks silly. Then he holds the controller out in front of him like it’s the first time he’s ever held one before and randomly taps at buttons, clearly not in sync with anything on the screen in front of him.

Beta Test
Larenz Tate (Beta Test, 2016)

I bring all this up because the gaming aspect is the core of the story and to believe the conceit–that Max is controlling every movement of Creed–we first need to see Max as a credible gamer. It’s a big pill to swallow. But fine. Move on. The person he is driving about the city and accomplishing troubling and controversial missions (one has him escorting a school shooter to safety), is well-cast and performed by Bennett, a hulking, bearded, leather-jacketed man who genuinely seems disturbed by the events unfolding around him. By the time he gets to his primary target, he’s done and seen a lot. I liked his performance. Which brings us to the fight.

Beta Test, upon release, will set a new record for the longest single-shot choreographed fight scene ever recorded. It’s eight minutes long. For comparison, the single-shot fight scene most people remember is Korea’s Oldboy, clocking in at three and a half minutes. The thing that made Oldboy so memorable, and a reason it works so well, is not the fight itself, but the space that is occupies. Shot in a long narrow hall, the confinement made the one-on-many believable. Here, the battle takes place in a large, open lobby with a wide flight of stairs. While the length and choreography are impressive, it still suffers from the same old trope of one man among many fighting the hero one at a time. But that said, it’s the highlight of the film and is done well, again thanks to Bennett. That can’t be said for his co-star Kevon Stover, playing Zane, Kincaid’s main henchman. Stover certainly looks the part, but he’s far too over-the-top and simply can’t sell the menace. 

All this might seem as if this might be one to skip, but actually, Beta Test, despite its flaws, keeps it compelling. I think that stems from an obvious genuineness by the makers to build what they could on the story. Watching that 8-minute fight, you get the sense that this wasn’t a gimmick, but a carefully planned and practiced action sequence they truly wanted to work. So too with many of gamer moments. For an independent film, Beta Test has a lot going for it and is worth a look.

Beta Test opens in select theaters on July 22.

‘Beta Test’ (2016): Review

Credits

Director: Nicholas Gyeney
Writers: Nicholas Gyeney
Stars: Manu Bennett, Larenz Tate, Linden Ashby, Kevon Stover, Brandy Kopp, Sara Coates

2.5
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