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'Max Cloud' Review: Get sucked into this video game universe

Martin Owen’s 'Max Cloud' recreates a video game's fantasy world in the form of a cinematic adventure.

The crew of 'Max Cloud.'
(Image: © Well Go USA)

Our Verdict

'Max Cloud' is a better video game satire than action flick, but showcases a genuine knowledge of gamer culture and how to skewer these notes appropriately.

For

  • 🚀 Commander Rexy ain't got time for dummies.
  • 🚀 Cinematograph has a side-scroller feel.
  • 🚀 Solid in-game gags.

Against

  • 🚀 Adkins isn't in full kickass mode.
  • 🚀 Gimmicks sometimes fade.
  • 🚀 Not as thrilling as promised.

Max Cloud will be available to stream December 18th, 2020. 

Our world, my friends, is a topsy-turvy orb. One where video game adaptations do their damndest to become “cinematic” while original movies like Martin Owen’s Max Cloud owe their entire production to console realities. It’s a 16-bit side-scroller as imagined from inside the system, which challenges cinematographer Håvard Helle to replicate the experience using real-world dimensions. A joystick should control boss battles, button mashing, and cutscenes, yet everything in Max Cloud has a mind of its own. There’s merit to the pixelated transformations put forward, and yet, it’s hard to uninhibitedly enjoy the left-left-down-right ride given how exceptionally silly narrative workarounds become.

Sarah (Isabelle Allen) is the self-proclaimed gamer queen of Brooklyn until her father (Tony, played by Sam Hazeldine) bans video games for an entire weekend. The distraught daughter mutters a wish about being able to play video games forever, so the Space Witch (Jason Maza) inside her favorite title, Max Cloud, sucks the player into Max Cloud’s universe. Sarah freaks out, now inhabiting the avatar of spaceship chef Jake (Elliot James Langridge), standing next to Max Cloud (Scott Adkins) in the “flesh” to speak, but then stakes become dire. If Sarah’s hot-dog-snacking best friend Cowboy (Franz Drameh) can’t control Max Cloud's way to beating Revengor (John Hannah), Sarah will be stuck inside the cosmic fantasy world forever.

I mean, the cast is enough to drool over. Scott Adkins plays the prototype masculine action hero, Max Cloud, afforded every male leadership stereotype who combo-kicks through their problems. John Hannah gravels his voice as Revengor, the ex-NASA astronaut who swears, well, revenge on Earth after he’s stranded on Heinous, a planet that houses the galaxy’s worst criminals. Lashana Lynch appears as Shee, a nasty-magical space enchantress who hisses fireballs, and Tommy Flanagan plays Brock Donnelly, a renowned renegade space cowboy. On paper? The pieces are in place.

As the narrative unfolds, Max Cloud makes it evident that these performers will not be used to their full potential. Adkins isn’t going bloodsport; he’s a one-liner machine that threatens fear through quips and uses martial arts in spurts whenever his role isn’t about deconstructing the Master Chief psyche. Hannah’s big-bad isn’t often allowed to be bad, presented as a joke who Jazzercises or complains about his anxiety. Lynch pops up to chuck energy balls, Flanagan is paid to shoot steely glances more than shotgun blasts, and their gimmicks run thin too quickly. Like in most early Super Mario Bros. play throughs, rather one-dimensional.

Helle’s camera strives to mimic the on-screen animations Cowboy sees while playing Max Cloud. It’s shockingly accomplished, as Helle recreates the spatial flatness, squared perspectives, and side-scroller motion quirks as Max Cloud brawls through space ninjas. Whenever Adkins is allowed to unleash the beast, Killer Cloud stabs combat knives through henchmen skulls so they stick to corridor roofs, creating a momentary shield to hide behind. Cut to a pluckily-pleased Cloud chewing lines like “That guy’s head came clean off!” It’s nowhere near action-packed, especially for an Adkins action jam, but that’s never the project’s aim. Max Cloud dares to replicate a video game and subvert tropes, in which case it succeeds through America-blue costumes or interstellar playhouse backdrops—laying structural templates for how video game movies of the future can still honor their virtual source materials.

Elsewhere, subplots are a mix of cringy and forgettable to slightly entertaining. Family “tension” between Tony and Sarah, living motherless and widowed, never sticks. Nor does Cowboy’s overemphatic selling of nervousness while he munches hot-dogs like that’s a personality trait (also, he calls 911 in a pointless sequence). Then again, gamer in-jokes are all the rage as Cowboy forces Jake (aka Sarah) to dart circles around a confused Max Cloud in jest or runs Jake into a wall over-and-over on autopilot during a quick pee break. For the lack of tension or suspense, even finale challenge intrigue, there are notable beats like Max Cloud defeating an ogreish foe by besting its out-of-sight NPC stupidity (if an NPC can’t see you, they’ll forget you).

Owen and co-writer Sally Collett know their audience and set phasers to “satire.”

Where I’m more tickled is by Commander Rexy (Sally Collett), the token female sidekick who’d be a love interest for Cloud dreamed by dude-developers, but in-game, sasses the bonehead punch-first supersoldier. “The humiliation, a woman’s taken the initiative!” Where emotional stakes are weaker than dial-up internet connections, Rexy has a bit of fun skewering the patriarchy and roasting norms like someone might question why all women in warrioress RPGs wear scantily-exposed armor to favor the male fantasy. Max Cloud is a brute dingus, and yet he’s the lunchbox savior. Rexy, appropriately, has some thoughts.

In the case of Max Cloud, there are two audience reactions I can gather. Inarguably, there will be those who laugh away the audacity of a thrill-seeking sci-fi adventurer that puts itself in the same narrative camp as Doom and yet barely recognizes Adkins’ ability to brutalize. Those hungry for Adkins’ interplanetary crash-landing into the game world’s equivalent Arkham Asylum will be lost in space, wondering when the excitement will throttle into gear. Otherwise? Max Cloud can be an introspectively buffoonish (albeit slight), oddly sweet, and technically accomplished interpretation of video game culture that’s harmless but in a watchable way. You’ll get your Mortal Kombat influences, your first-person blaster duels, typecasted personalities, but only as homage or commentary. It’s under ninety minutes, contains genuine chuckles, and gets you to the credits without much effort—a double-sided conclusion that will polarize viewers.