Conspiracy theorists obsessed with spinning false-flag scenarios may appreciate the stoking of their paranoia during “Beta Test,” a weirdly retro and energetically preposterous thriller about a video-game mogul’s plot to seriously restrict the right to bear arms. But the only other conceivable audience for this low-budget, high-concept sci-fi action-thriller would be B-movie fanatics with a deep-rooted fondness for the sort of ’80s direct-to-video concoctions that once littered shelves at Blockbuster outlets. At one point, a character here pointedly asks for soda and popcorn as he watches action unfold on big-screen monitors. In real-life, however, viewers more likely will be consuming brewskies and microwaved burritos as the absurdities proceed apace.
The plot has something to do with a video-game developer who’s been implanted with a device that more or less turns him into a real-world first-person shooter, and has something else to do with an agoraphobic beta-tester forced to control the shooter’s action from the relative safety of his living room. There is a method to this seeming madness: Creed (Manu Bennett), the guy with the implant, wanted to build on his wartime experiences by designing technology that could transform normal soldiers into remote-controlled super-warriors. (Hey, did someone say “Universal Soldier?”) But that technology is turned against him by Kincaid (Linden Ashby), a vidgame tycoon with a vaguely defined scheme to disarm citizens and “keep guns in games” by using Creed and others as patsies to wreak havoc, elevate body counts, and otherwise tilt public opinion toward more restrictive gun-control laws. No kidding.
Larenz Tate figures into the mix as Max, a cocky yet reclusive beta-tester who hasn’t left his house in years because – are you sitting down? – jealous rivals inadvertently shot his beloved dog while aiming at him. Kincaid forces Max to try his hand at controlling Creed in order to “get the bugs out” of the new technology. But Creed — who just happens to be a bone-breaking, throat-slitting, butt-kicking bad boy when he’s not working in the lab — manages to go rogue in order to free his wife (Sara Coates) from Kincaid’s clutches.
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From the opening credits, which unfold over news clips depicting terrible events ranging from 9/11 to the Aurora movie theater shootings, to the sporadic mentions of false-flag theories — evoking the JFK assassination, Creed refers to Lee Harvey Oswald as “a distraction” — “Beta Test” is fraught with indications that director Nicholas Gyeney, working from a script he co-wrote with Andre Kirkman, intends this nonsense to work on some level as a cautionary tract about… well, some kind of clear and present danger. (Gun-hating lefties, maybe?)
Ultimately, however, “Beta Test” works best (and even then, just barely) as an homage to those Reagan/Bush Era quickies designed to slake the hearty appetites of undiscriminating VHS renters. The preponderance of interior shots, the mad dashes through conspicuously underpopulated streets, the ’80s porn-star mustaches on plot-recapitulating newscasters, the aggressively loud VH1-ready musical score, the melodramatic line readings by actors desperate to hard-sell generic dialogue — really, just about the only thing that’s missing here is a swaggering cameo by Wings Hauser. Instead, we get a broadly villainous turn as a sadistic henchman by Kevon Stover, who looks and sounds like what you’d have to settle for if you went shopping at Kmart for Danny Trejo.