Virtually Heroes is a good idea, but I’m not entirely sure it’s a good idea for a movie. I can imagine the pitch meeting going very well: “It’s set in the action-packed world of video games, but the stone-jawed protagonist has started questioning the fatalistic nature of his reality.” Artistically intriguing, thematically rich, and with the bonus promise of non-stop mayhem and carnage, it might have seemed like a slam-dunk. Unfortunately, the cyclical nature of the storyline and the unexplored realms outside the unnamed video game in which Virtually Heroes resides make actually watching it a minor chore.
Books (Robert Baker of “Grey’s Anatomy”) and his psychotic sidekick Nova (Brent Chase) are action heroes in a first-person shooter set during the Vietnam War. The plot of the game is largely non-existent: a plucky, nameless reporter (Katie Savoy) is repeatedly kidnapped by bad guys, and Books and Nova are repeatedly sent on missions to rescue her. Existential malaise sets in when Books, who has a rather limp love subplot with the reporter, gets frustrated by his inability to seal the deal, thanks largely to a gamer who, clearly, has serious problems figuring out the game’s rather repetitive scripting.
Or maybe it’s Books’ fault, since both he and Nova are sometimes able to explore new lines of attack (presumably absent from the game proper), or make other decisions for themselves about whether they want to play the game as god, or at least an apparently uninspired programmer, intended. The screenplay, by Matt Yamashita, touches upon interesting ideas but has trouble defining the parameters of Books’ existence very clearly. All the characters in this unnamed shoot ‘em up are fully aware that they are in the video game, dread being paused, and sometimes complain about starving to death when their user forgets to turn off the TV. But how do they know even this fraction of the nature of their existence and not understand the futility of their endless respawns, or understand the context of their world enough to know that “Shift-F7” has a specific function in their lives? Come to think of it, how can leaving the TV on be a problem when “Shift-F7” is a command you’d only use on a PC?
If you get past the inconsistencies of the concept, however, you still have to contend with the story, which by its very nature must repeat the same scenes over and over again, in only slightly different contexts. This can lead to some pretty funny jokes, particularly when Books acquires a Gears of War upgrade that ‘roids out his shoulders and neck to obscene proportions, but the repetition gets tiresome after half an hour, and unfortunately spends the 30-ish minutes in the middle going over similar ground, only spiking interest with fighting game interludes that, really, would never be found in a game from another genre. Unless that game is Shenmue, but I have played Shenmue, and you, Virtually Heroes, are no Shenmue.
Still, the existential crisis that evolves from hackneyed writing, intractable scripting and a life marred by your own constant, pointless death is an interesting idea. As Books, Robert Baker embodies this fairly well, capturing the stoic hero persona as well as the angst of a mid-life crisis in equal measure. The story, unfortunately, doesn’t stretch to many interesting places after that initial “aha” moment, leading mostly to repeat renditions of the same, low-rent action sequences and a formulaic sage character, played by Mark “Best-Celebrity-Cameo-We-Could-Get” Hamill, who imparts wisdom that never quite counts as an epiphany, and has little to do with the film’s fundamental conceit beyond, well, that would be telling, but gamers will know it when they see it, and will either have a mild geek out because we’ve all done it at one time or another, or cry foul because ultimately, that’s not the point, at least to the user.
Virtually Heroes also bears the sad misfortune of coming after Ben Croshaw’s novel Mogworld, which illustrated a similar scenario – video game characters confused by the nature of their existence – with infinitely more wit and consideration for detail. Perhaps the key was that only the reader/audience knew what was really going on, while the heroes and villains acted as if they, like everyone else in the real world, had absolutely no idea how or why their reality works. The self-awareness in Virtually Heroes creates an unfortunate disconnect that prevents the film from ever seeming “real,” even to its own protagonists, and ultimately harming the finished product. Or maybe a connection to the clearly “real” human being controlling the heroes’ fate was necessary to ground the film in a modicum of humanity beyond abstract philosophical concepts that are never explored because there are apparently too many teabagging jokes to be made instead.
Virtually Heroes is virtually a good film, but there are too many inherent difficulties in the concept to produce it in this relatively undeveloped state. I sense potential in the minds behind it, but not enough discipline to maximize that potential. I suggest they hit “restart.”
And check out these other reviews from Sundance 2013:
Who is Dayani Cristal?; starring Gael Garcia Bernal
Two Mothers; starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts
Austenland; starring Keri Russell
Emmanuel and the Truth About Fishes; starring Kaya Scodelario
Don Jon's Addiction; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson
Breathe In; starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pierce
Inequality for All; featuring Robert Reich
Blue Caprice; starring Isaiah Washington and Tim Blake Nelson
Fill the Void; starring Renana Raz
Running From Crazy; featuring Mariel Hemingway
Wrong Cops; starring Steve Little
Hell Baby; starring Rob Corddry
Stoker; starring Nicole Kidman
Escape from Tomorrow; shot without permits at Disney World
Before Midnight; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
We Are What We Are; starring Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner
Afternoon Delight; starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple
Ass Backwards; starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael
I Used to Be Darker; starring Deragh Campbell
Magic Magic; starring Juno Temple
Prince Avalanche; starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
Sweetwater; starring January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris
Crystal Fairy; starring Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman
S-VHS; sequel to found footage horror film V/H/S|
Lovelace; starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone
The East; starring Brit Marling and Alexander Saarsgaard
After Tiller, about abortion doctor George Tiller
Citizen Koch, about The Koch Brothers and campaign finance contributions
Gangs of Wasseypur, a 5 1/2 hour Indian crime epic
In Fear, a horror movie set entirely within a car
The Rambler, starring Dermot Mulroney
What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love, about a school for the blind and deaf
Upstream Color; starring Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz