Well before every dingus with a webcam had a “web series” where they reviewed things as a character, there was the Angry Video Game Nerd.
To this day, the Nerd (James Rolfe) is one of the more consistent personalities on the internet, and one of about three video game reviewers left who hasn’t alienated everyone. If I were totally honest and mapped out how I ended up at Deadshirt, the AVGN would appear on that timeline. I even had the pleasure of attending a panel run by Rolfe himself (out of character) at MAGfest this year, and had a chance to meet him and get his autograph. He’s a nice, soft-spoken guy who genuinely appreciates his fans. He also seems to be one of the few reviewers left focused more on their own work than having petty out-of-character feuds and causing controversy.
Like many fans, I’ve been patiently waiting for the Nerd’s feature film debut for a few years now. The excellent trailer hyped me up even more. Now that it’s out and ready for home viewing, I can safely declare that it was worth the wait. Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie is everything a fan could want out of a Nerd movie and then some.
First, a quick note about the sheer amount of effort put into this film. The script was completed in 2008. Rolfe limited production of his web series in 2010 to prepare for the film. He crowdfunded the film in 2011, and raised about $325k–which was the budget for the whole film. The movie went into pre-production and started filming in 2012, and wrapped up on December 30th, 2013. A year and a half of filming. Just a few days later, he was at MAGfest, showing off behind-the-scenes footage. A few months ago, it premiered at the goddamn Grauman’s Egyptian Theater.
For a Hollywood movie, a lot of that would be pretty standard. But James Rolfe isn’t a Hollywood figure, he’s a regular guy with a web series. Sure, he gets money from it, but not Spielberg money. The simple fact that he was able to do this and have it premiere at one of the most famous theaters in the world is worthy of a landfill of respect.
The film wasn’t just made with a cast of friends – it has Actual Actors and Notable Names in it, including noted character actors Stephen Mendel and Time Winters. Robbie Rist voices a prominent character in the third act. There are also cameos by Doug “Nostalgia Critic” Walker, Lloyd Kaufman, and noted game designer (and creator of the ET game) Howard Scott Warshaw. The score was composed by Bear freakin’ McCreary, and his arrangement of Justin Kyle’s AVGN theme as a dramatic movie score fulfills a wish I didn’t even know I had.
The plot of the film revolves around the ET game for the Atari 2600, often regarded as the worst video game of all time, and the famed Atari landfill, where Atari buried thousands of unsold and returned games after the video game crash of 1983.
It starts with Mandi (Sarah Glendening), an employee of the comically misguided and slightly villainous Cockburn Industries, pitching a game to her boss: ET 2, a sequel to legendary video game bomb ET (spelled Eee Tee in the film, presumably for copyright reasons) that will deliberately be worse than its predecessor. Playing bad video games has become in vogue thanks to the Nerd and his reviews, and Mandi believes that if they can get an endorsement from the Nerd their sales will skyrocket.
When the Nerd finds out about ET2, his fans demand that he review the original to coincide with the sequel’s release. The Nerd has long avoided reviewing ET, but after some thought comes to an agreement with his friend/sidekick/self-styled manager Cooper (Jeremy Suarez): they’ll go to the alleged Atari burial site, and if they find anything actually buried there, the Nerd will review it. With some sponsorship by Mandi and Cockburn Industries, who secretly want to raise awareness of their new game by making a documentary about the Nerd’s search, they go on their way. Through their journey they encounter a government secret, the truth behind ET‘s design, and a giant alien robot bent on destruction of the universe.
(It’s worth noting that during the making of the film, the Atari landfill was uncovered, proving the myth to be true. Rolfe was aware this was happening during filming, but still expressed surprise at the coincidence and likened it to making a film about the Loch Ness Monster and finding someone had drained the lake.)
Even when things get deliberately corny (and boy do they at times), everyone in the film puts in a good performance and clearly has a great time in the process. Suarez is entertaining as the well-meaning-but-slightly-naive Cooper, and Geldening’s performance as delightful-yet-devious Mandi ties the film together like a good Persian rug. Mandel’s turn as the legless General Dark Onward is a film highlight, and you can always count on something ludicrous happening when he’s on screen.
Treating the movie as a Real Film and not an Extended Special Episode of the series strengthens the film and prevented it from falling into many of the traps other internet personality films face. The small core cast allowed writing to be focused, and each character has a unique voice. Contrast this with, for example, Channel Awesome’s crossover events: while they tend to be fun and complex, they can suffer from Ensemble Fatigue and often feature the sole writer’s voice coming from each character. (I’m still not quite sure why they made Film Brain the gullible goofball in Kickassia, he’s one of the most cerebral guys on their staff.)
The film pulls off something close to a miracle: it manages to use, draw attention to, and otherwise lampshade bad movie tropes without ever succumbing to them. In recent years, it’s become vogue to make Deliberately Bad Movies that embrace tropes without overtly acknowledging them. Call it the Sharknado Effect. Not the AVGN movie. It realizes how certain aspects are clichéd or ridiculous and rolls with them without letting them take over the plot. This leads to some real highlights of the film, including a novel take on Area 51 and the single best punchline I’ve ever seen to a car chase scene. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t look low budget (looking like a mediocre old video game is a stated goal) but it’s not a slave to it, either. Even McCreary’s score manages to sound maintain a video game sound without sacrificing grandiosity.
The film is not without its flaws. Mandi’s story arc comes to a bit of a weak close, and it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity to fully extrapolate on the acceptance of female gamers. The third act of the film, while fun, feels a bit too excessive at times. It also seemed that some characters were set up to get some form of comeuppance that never properly arrived. They also missed a good opportunity for a cameo by series favorite Super Mecha Death Christ 2000, but that one’s nitpicking. That said, none of these flaws detract from the sheer joy of the film.
I’m not going to lie, this film is almost entirely for fans of the AVGN. While non-fans can still find many things to like, many of the in-jokes and plot points rely on at least casual knowledge of the Nerd, his tendencies, and his more notorious reviews. If you haven’t seen his Top Gun review, for example, you’re going to miss many of the more notable jokes.
If you’re a fan, though, this film is everything you’d want out of an AVGN movie and more. It features plenty of Nerd, cursing, laughs, a few moments of solid drama, and most importantly, bad video games. It’s pure fun from beginning to end. In many ways, the AVGN’s career feels like it was leading up to this moment, and he doesn’t let us down.
AVGN: The Movie is available for rental or purchase through Vimeo. A DVD/Blu-Ray release is forthcoming.