THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Beta Test is one of the stupidest movies I've seen in more than twenty years as a film critic. That probably sounds simplistic and dismissive, especially considering that a lot of hard work goes into making any movie. I wouldn't normally write something off as “stupid,” but in this case, it's an entirely accurate descriptor, as no other word does the picture justice. If it was just stupid, that would be bad enough, but Beta Test has an even bigger problem, which is why it doesn't require a review so much as a warning.
Larenz Tate (Menace II Society) plays Max Troy, an agoraphobic videogame beta tester assigned to play through a new game from a major company. What he doesn't initially realize is that the “game” is real. The company's power-hungry head, Andrew Kincaid (Linden Ashby), has developed a process whereby gamers can control real people who have a special chip implanted in their neck. The test subject is his former business partner, Orson Creed (Manu Bennett, giving a performance of astonishing stiffness). Troy, who quickly learns the truth, has to guide Creed through a series of missions. For every one they fail, the latter's kidnapped wife will lose an appendage. The gamer wants to simply stop, but Kincaid announces that the armed goons outside his house will kill him if he does.
Beta Test has a premise that sounds awesome until you realize it entails literally watching a guy playing a videogame for long stretches of time. Troy sits in his chair, controller in hand, staring at a television set. That's as exciting as it sounds. Many of the action scenes are done via computer graphics, since that's what he sees as he controls Creed. (The game somehow instantaneously transfers real-life environments and people into computer simulations.) Even after he figures out what's really going on, Troy's job is to keep playing. Monotony arrives at heretofore unprecedented levels.
The centerpiece of the movie is a very long (i.e. seemingly endless) fight scene, filmed in one continuous shot. This represents a rare occasion in which Beta Test features action with real people. While the technique is impressive, the sequence itself is absurd. Creed – controlled by Troy – fights a couple dozen security guards and cops in the lobby of a building. Of course, he gets hit multiple times with no effect, while they all fall unconscious after taking one punch. More laughably, the guards visibly stand around, waiting to take their turn to join the melee. (Note to Movie Cops: if you're fighting a guy who can't be brought down, don't go one at a time. Have everybody pounce on him simultaneously.)
Not only is Beta Test an astoundingly bad movie, it's an extremely offensive one. The opening credit sequence begins by flashing the words “NOTHING IS WHAT IT SEEMS” onscreen, before cutting to news footage of the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, and the one thing that should never, ever be used in frivolous entertainment, the horrific events of Sept. 11. The movie seems to be saying that all of those things were conspiracies, which, in the case of 9/11, is an appalling sentiment. Their inclusion is odd, considering nothing else in Beta Test references them in the slightest. Yes, the plot sort of involves a conspiracy, but it's a dumb action-movie conspiracy, not anything with real-world relevance. Someone needs to tell director/co-writer Nicholas Gyeney that co-opting a real-life tragedy doesn't automatically lend a film weight; it just proves that you aren't afraid to stoop to tastelessness.
It gets worse. (Mild, but essential spoiler alert!) One of the missions Troy must undertake is to guide Creed to the site of a school shooting and protect the shooter. To save himself and Creed's wife, he complies. You read that right: he allows a bunch of innocent children to die in order to save himself and another adult. Kind of hard to root for a “hero” who would do that. As if that wasn't sufficiently revolting, Beta Test never deals with the repercussions of what happened. Troy sheds one tear after it's done and then conveniently forgets about it. At the end of the movie, when the bad guy is defeated, he doesn't even have a moment where he stops and feels bad about allowing scared kids to be brutally murdered. He carries on happily with his life. This whole scenario is stomach-churning.
Beta Test is agonizing to watch, and the sour taste it leaves afterward is hard to get rid of. Using 9/11 and school shootings as part of a dumb, pointless action movie is such a poor decision that you have to question the motives of anyone who would think it acceptable. There may not be a more unpleasant film this year.
(1/2 out of four)
Beta Test is unrated, but contains sequences of violence and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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