Producers: E.J. Kavounis, Marcy Carpenter, AJ Tesler Director: AJ Tesler Screenplay: Jeff Carpenter Cast: Mira Sorvino, Chris Carpenter, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Erik Griffin, Creed Bratton, Nelson Franklin, Indiana Massara, Philip Solomon, Kimia Behpoornia, Monte Markham, Jim O’Heir, Al Madrigal, Bobby Lee, Bret Harrison and Sean Astin Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
This family-friendly movie is actually a family affair: based, the credits tell us, on a story by Chris, Ellie, Jeff and Marcy Carpenter, co-produced by Marcy from a script by Jeff, and starring their son Chris, “Hero Mode” is a barely-cable-quality tale about a boy who saves his family’s video-game business by overcoming his desire to go creatively solo and turning the entire team into—you guessed it—a family. Unfortunately, it might have been better if the movie had been kept within the Carpenter family and not released publicly.
The plot is set in motion when Kate Mayfield (Mira Sorvino), the head of Playfield Games, which she and her deceased husband founded together, is desperately searching for investors to keep the business afloat. Her great hope is Jackhammer, a decidedly retro-looking game that’s the passion project of her stuck-in-the-past head designer Jimmy Tisdale (Sean Astin), whose real-estate father (Creed Bratton) has always scorned his son’s career choice. But when the sole prospective angel comes to her house to celebrate a deal, he asks Kate’s high school son Troy (Carpenter) to test the game, and not knowing its source, the boy trashes it mercilessly, scaring the investor away and leaving Playfield’s future in imminent peril.
Simultaneously Troy’s suspended from school when the principal (Bobby Lee) discovers that the kid has used his computer skills to give all his classmates perfect scores on their standardized tests. The trick might have won the school a big prize, but it was certainly unacceptable.
Desperate for inspiration (and cognizant of the fact that the kid now has plenty of free time on his hands), Kate gives Troy the chance he’s always dreamed of—to design a game for his dad’s company. It will have to be ready for unveiling at PixelCon, the gaming convention where fans can boost or doom any new offering by voting it up or down.
What follows offers no surprises. Troy, thinking he can do it all alone, pushes his pet idea—something that looks like a cheesy “Lord of the Rings” role-playing rip-off, infuriating Jimmy and cutting off the rest of the company staff—including CFO Lyndon (Monte Markkam), along with designers Laura (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Marie (Kimia Behpoornia)—in the process. As for Kate, she has to recuperate when sidelined by her MS.
Troy’s attempt to create a great game flounders, and so does his relationship with his best buddy Nick (Philip Solomon), who insists on posting on the web stuff that Troy wants kept confidential—like his dissing of rival company Xodus and its owner Rick (Nelson Franklin), who acts like a friend to Kate, even offering to buy Playfield, but is actually maneuvering to sink the company. There’s some consolation in Troy’s budding romance with Paige (Indiana Massara), Lyndon’s daughter, who encourages him even as he encourages her to overcome her fear of singing in public.
Eventually the screenplay springs its obvious moral when Troy realizes that he can’t go it alone, and enlists the entire staff—as well as his classmates and their goofy computer teacher Mr. Diehl (Erik Griffin)—in the crusade, which eventually involves blending Jimmy’s game with his. That’s not enough, of course—a virus sent surreptitiously in an e-mail destroys the game, though the problem is resolved by an unlikely intervention from Nick and Diehl—and the big unveiling at the convention is temporarily obstructed by Rick, with Paige providing rescue in that case. Unbelievably the crowd votes the Playfield game, which frankly looks terrible, the best in show, though it must be admitted that Rick’s entry looks like a loser too. There’s a revenge coda that’s even dumber.
Flatly directed by AJ Tesler, “Hero Mode” gives some lip service to the realities of the gaming world, including brief appearances from influencers like Scott the Woz (Scott Wozniak), but it seems woefully behind the curve in virtually every respect, including its own chintzy visual effects supervised by Martin Hall. Otherwise in technical terms the movie—with a production design by Christina Eunji Kim, cinematography by Jonathan Hall, editing by Daniel Flesher and a score by Bill Brown—is barely on the level of live-action fare made for cable channels catering to pre-teens.
Nor is the acting of stellar quality. Carpenter seems like a likable kid, but his performance is tentative, even when his rather irksome character is exuding an excess of confidence in his own talents, while Solomon overdoes things as his overeager sidekick and Massara makes a nice but colorless romantic interest for him. The pros in the supporting cast go through their paces unremarkably, though Astin tries much too hard to wring laughs out of his lame material; Griffin is more successful as the excitable teacher.
The world of gaming could conceivably provide a backdrop for a witty satire or a raunchy farce, but this limp kid-centric take on it is unlikely to amuse anybody, even its young target audience.