I watched Boss Level (2020). This is a sci-fi film that is not attempting to be a serious, subtle independent sci-fi film that isn’t like a Hollywood product, and so consequently it has lots of positive qualities missing in some of the other sci-fi films I watched recently.
The introductory screen is like an 80-s arcade game and that gives us a big clue to what is happening.
In case you didn’t get the clue, the lead character has a voiceover explaining everything as we go along.
Roy Pulver is a former Special Forces guy woken up by a killer breaking in to his apartment. Having seen him off he then has to deal with the helicopter gunship firing on him from outside. He’s used to this because it’s a loop that has been occurring over 100 times and he’s slowly learned how to progress along the obstacles, but he still gets killed by one of the killers pursuing him each time.
The soundtrack is 80s soft rock and Roy is a wise-crackin’ dude getting by in a mad world. Which is to say that he is a massive irritation at least until we start getting chunks of extra plot dropped in: his ex-partner Jemma Wells is working on a top-secret science project but still needs to talk to him about their wayward son Joe.
The Science Thing is a big electronic tunnel called The Osiris Spindle and Jemma is trying to tell Roy something important about it, but she’s being spied on by her boss Col. Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson).
Ventor gives a quite-good monologue halfway, one of several points where this film shows there were some good ideas in it, even though the tone is all over the place in the final version.
There seem to be several strands here, and maybe the problem is that someone decided to put too many in, either to make it more commercial or just to figure out the plot which they couldn’t resolve otherwise.
- The basic idea of Guy Is Living In An 80s Video Game is a good one, and links to the appearance of a retro-gaming arcade later in the film. This could have been a broody dark indie film where the obvious twist is that this is the death-fantasy-vision of a sad dad who tried to bond with his estranged son over old games but didn’t get to the rendezvous before a disaster struck. But then we’d have to work very hard to make it out, without the help of the bright and breezy voiceover.
- Or he could be living in a virtual reality experiment modelled on 80s gaming, which would fit with the obvious detail that this world is actually like an old adventure game, with helpful clues and characters to work out in order to eventually find the exit.
- The action sequences are done with many jokey moments and asides and we are to understand that the stereotype arcade game killer characters are played as such and everyone’s in on the joke, including Mel when his character has a faux pas about whether the assassin’s sword is Japanese or Chinese.
- Instead the magic device turns out to be The Osiris Spindle which has time-twisting effects on the real non-virtual universe, and it creates time for Roy to Be A Real Dad with Joe. This also means the killers are “real”, and so perhaps Ventor’s instruction that “random freaks” had to be hired for the job was inserted into the script to rationalise their absurdity. So “it’s a video game reality” is lost.
- We have an ambiguous ending as though we’re taking it all seriously and we don’t know if the heroic man is going to succeed in his potentially self-sacrificing final roll of the dice.
The main problem is that Roy is a pain in the arse when he isn’t doing the cool stuff and is talking and relating to people instead. But I’m not sure that a “fixed” or 100% po-faced version of the film would be any better. Waffling about virtual reality and AI and lots of other tech things that are actually really boring in reality isn’t smarter than doing an honest slice of Hollywood nonsense with car chases and tough guys with machine guns. Maybe this film is out of time in the sense that it really belongs to the Ironic 90s, opening soon after Terminator 2 and just doing the Comedy Of Apocalypse without any killer robots.