As I’m watching Level Up, I remember something renowned comic book artist Howard Chaykin said (multiple times) about television. Chaykin’s general complaint with television is that it’s designed to flatter viewers into thinking that they’re, “too hip for television.” This pretty much directly applies to Level Up, a totally derivative and, more importantly, bland show about a trio of high schoolers that have to stop an evil computer game villain from escaping the virtual world of the game and trying to take over the real world of the film.
Level Up is an unconvincing 90-minute commercial for an upcoming TV show named Level Up and for Conqueror Of Worlds, the video game prominently featured throughout Level Up. This wouldn’t matter if Level Up worked as a dynamic action-adventure story unto itself. Unfortunately, it’s just a mountain of clichés, cheesy contemporary pop culture allusions, and lazy moralizing from screenwriters Derek Guiley and David Schneider. The real problem with Level Up isn’t that its creators have tried very hard to convince their viewers that they’re too hip for Level Up. The real problem is that they’re right.
In Level Up, three young male nerds come together to fight the evil Maldark (George Faughnan, doing a third-rate Tim Curry impression). Maldark is the final boss in Conqueror Of Worlds. When Maldark tries to take over the real world, Wyatt (Gaelan Connell), a trivia bowl-obsessed nerd, is forced to team-up with Dante (Connor del Rio), a loud and desperate-for-attention nerd, and Lyle (Jessie Usher), a closeted nerd that only acts like a jock for social status and the approval of his father.
These kids aren’t friends in real life because of petty differences. Lyle doesn’t want to ruin his reputation, and apparently, Wyatt’s status as a trivia club nerd makes him too nerdy for Dante, who spends a lot of time trying to get people to notice him. So, true to stock plot form, Wyatt, Dante, and Lyle only come together as a geeky cabal after Maldark threatens to take over the real world.
The fact that Guiley and Schneider don’t have an original idea in their heads about how to characterize Lyle, Wyatt and Dante’s relationship is bad enough. But they also just don’t know how the mind of their target audience, nerdy males, works. References are peppered throughout Level Up to everything from Leroy Jenkins, the World Of Warcraft player that became a meme unto himself, to 30 Rock (Yes, one character reflexively says, “What the what?”). Those two references alone span a fairly vast spectrum of pop culture meta-reflexivity. What kind of nerd is Level Up for and about, exactly?
Well, it’s supposed to be about all kinds, actually. The instantly forgettable and totally half-assed take-away message of Level Up is that everyone should feel comfortable being a little nerdy, which, in the film, is the same thing as being yourself. Lyle’s father pressures him to write a speech for halftime at the big game and to not play computer games that won’t get him anything out of life (“Nobody made it to the end of their life and felt, ‘I wish I’d been a bigger nerd.’”). Lyle’s use of his halftime speech to come out of the nerdy closet is a patently toothless kind of rebellion (“Sometimes there’s more to life than football and popularity and campaign speeches!”). Lyle just gets to shrug his dad and the disapproval of the football game’s spectators off. They don’t matter much to him anymore, and apparently, he doesn’t have to worry about coming home to a disappointed dad. Lyle’s made his choice and declared to everyone (ie: his father and a bunch of strangers) that he’s proud to be a geek.
If this scene really mattered, there’d be consequences to Lyle’s declaration. In other words, there’d at least be a discussion or some kind of acknowledgment from Lyle’s dad that Lyle is right and that dad has to let go. There isn’t, and so Lyle’s daddy issues are quelled with a few tone-deaf truisms. Though I will say this: It was funny to see the look of confusion and outrage on the face of the only black girl at Lyle’s game. She clearly did not know what hit her: Lyle a geek? Why?!
But what about the other two members of the group? As a character, Dante doesn’t get developed as much as either of his RPG-loving confreres, so let’s just skip him and move on to Wyatt. Wyatt feels guilty for being geeky because he’s not confident enough. Like Lyle, he doesn’t own up to his geekiness. This is presumably why Dante’s character doesn’t get developed—at all. Because he’s nerdy enough to let his freak flag fly and embarrass himself in front of the school. In one scene. The rest of the time he’s just that guy that Lyle and Wyatt team-up with to battle a totally forgettable evil wizard with a bulbous, bald head and no unique or distinguishing characteristics beyond the fact that he’s got a big, phallic-looking head.
Sorry, I got distracted for a moment. Wyatt! Is not confident. This manifests most immediately in the way that he interacts with girls. He is a nerd, after all. So he can’t bring himself to ask out Tia (Onira Tares), the hot, popular girl he’s tutoring, but he does learn how to be comfortable being with and soon dating Angie (Aimee Carrero), an introvert that is barely in the show until she’s recruited to join Wyatt and the boys to stop Maldark.
The fact that Wyatt winds up going out with Angie is reasonable enough within context: Wyatt’s found a girl that he’s both attracted to and feels comfortable talking to. But keep in mind that this is after Wyatt’s younger brother Zach (Griffin Roper) teases him by threatening to steal Angie away from him by taking his allowance and “making it rain.” This is neither cute nor especially funny, not just because it’s a stupid line but because it implies that there’s something wrong with Wyatt’s behavior.
Based on his two or three interactions with his younger borther, one can infer that what’s really wrong with Wyatt is that he’s shy around girls. Zach makes a seemingly innocuous crack about how Wyatt should settle for less and just go out with a girl with a back brace. According to Level Up, being comfortable talking to girls makes you a “different” boy, not being generally socially insecure. The fact that Wyatt gets with Angie in the end confirms that he could only really mature after he found a way to date a girl. But don’t worry, young nerdy viewers, you, too, can keep playing video games, get the girl, and make friends. All you have to do is just be yourself. Funny... I don't feel very flattered...