Hero Mode, 2021.
Directed by A.J. Tesler.
Starring Mira Sorvino, Chris Carpenter, Sean Astin, Indiana Massara, Nelson Franklin, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kimia Behpoornia, Matthew Patrick, Bobby Ler, Creed Bratton, Bret Harrison, Erik Griffin, Monte Markham, Jim O’Heir, Madison Rothschild, Carlease Burke, and Al Madrigal.
A teenage coding genius has just 30 days to create the world’s greatest video game or his family loses everything. No pressure.
The hook for Hero Mode implies that teenage coding prodigy Troy Mayfield (Chris Carpenter) will have to create the greatest videogame ever made to save the family business (an independent gaming studio), to which anyone will rightfully ask what that even means. More confusing, in the context of the movie, that question is never really directly addressed as the story becomes more about competing with a fictional big-budget studio developing a Halo knockoff, hoping to have the butter showcase at something called Pixel Con (I suppose not even the dying E3 wanted to strike a licensing agreement for this).
Additional pressure comes from Troy’s realization that his mom Kate (Mira Sorvino), now the head of the company following dad’s tragic passing, struggles to develop a functional game, let alone one that’s worth playing. The game currently in development not only looks janky and pixelated but is also buggy, and as if it should be coming out for the PlayStation 1 rather than anything in modern times. It’s a sandbox-style game following around a character destroying houses with a drill. Who the hell wants to play that? Well, Sean Astin plays Jimmy, a longtime creative force at the studio passionate about the project as a way to push back against his father. The latter doesn’t see the field of game design as a real job, which sounds like something that someone would say in 1985, not 2021, when gaming is a multibillion-dollar industry continuously growing.
Personal or not, it’s easy to get on the side of Troy, who decides that the best course of action is to come up with something else from scratch, except I can’t say his ideas are that much more enjoyable. A side character sums it up as a standard RPG, and that’s precisely what the game is; generic high fantasy multiplayer nonsense with familiar classes that brings to mind a combination of Fable and the Lord of the Rings.
The problem with Hero Mode isn’t necessarily the lack of originality on display within fake video games that probably never had a chance to be engaging in the first place, but the execution itself. Cringe adult characters are trying to be hip (a teacher says, “AF,” which translates to “as fuck”, there is heavy-handed emotional manipulation with Troy’s mother facing an illness, and there’s also some wish fulfillment as Troy crushes on new student Paige (Indiana Massara) as he finds the time to develop gadgets to help her overcome her anxiety during public singing performances. Computer viruses also make a comical appearance with seemingly no understanding of how technology works. The plot-based frustrations a little more forgivable considering it’s a family-friendly movie, but at the same time, there’s not enough fun here to grab the attention of, say, the Fortnite crowd.
To the credit of director A.J. Tesler and screenwriter Jeff Carpenter, they do feel like gamers in some respects. There are inside jokes about micro-transactions, awkward but welcome voiceover lessons about the importance of not skipping cut-scenes, and a general appreciation for the insanity of gaining developmental cycles. It doesn’t get into anything controversial, such as crunch culture, but there is genuine respect for the difficulty of these jobs. Unfortunately, it should also be reiterated that the script never really comes up with a compelling video game idea. By the end, the product the characters want to release is a terrible take on a concept that already exists.
The film also uses the hectic work environment to promote collaboration and teamwork (the most crucial lesson Troy has to learn is that he can’t do everything by himself despite his ridiculous intelligence level), which is also a decent dynamic to showcase for younger audiences. However, everything else about Hero Mode is too hollow, fake, and lame that it’s hard to imagine the intended demographics caring. A few clever inside jokes about the gaming industry don’t make a good movie. Factoring in the forced melodrama and depicting a girl peer as nothing more than an object of affection to win over, Hero Mode also has its fair share of questionable aspects.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com