“Max Steel” is a movie sprung from a children’s action figure: a slick Mattel toy from the late 1990s that varies in length, width and style, depending on which model you picked up. For any prospective viewers, this is perhaps the only fact you need to know upon entering Stewart Hendler’s 92-minute sci-fi journey.
If reverence is what you have for Max Steel, then you’ll likely find some enjoyment in his three-dimensional transformation from miniature toy figure to overgrown teenage boy. As for the rest, Hendler (“Sorority Row”) offers up essentially nothing. Despite its sizable production costs, “Max Steel” is a spectacle without the spectacle, an autumnal, amorphous blockbuster that just sits there, suspended in mid-air, as you soak in its ceaseless banality.
The sameness of “Max Steel” begins with its protagonist, taciturn 16-year-old Max (Ben Winchell, “Finding Carter“) frustrated with his single mother, Molly (Maria Bello). Once again, the two of them have uprooted to another town in the hopes of starting anew. “Fresh start number nine!” says Max, sarcastically. “It’s only the eighth time!” replies Molly. This is the type of witty banter we’re privy to for the next hour and a half. There are reasons why they’ve relocated, and why they’re without a father and husband. However, since screenwriter Christopher Yost (“Thor: The Dark World”) is careful (or, rather, obstinate) about disclosing them, it seems unfair to do so in a review.
What’s important to know is that there is tension between Molly and Max. At least, there’s supposed to be. The dialogue they exchange can’t resist cliché. “You do remind me of your dad,” says Molly. Max then asks to know more about this father. Here’s the scene:
How come everyone in this town knows more about my dad than I do?
His story is so complicated… I don’t know if you’re…
If I’m what?
In place of a substantive narrative, the characters in “Max Steel” hint at a mysterious sub-narrative but truth be told, the script is slight. Soon after settling into his new town, Max discovers his body can generate powerful energy. The details are, once again, a bit nebulous. What we do know is that Max is stronger when working with Steel, a robotic, cryogenically frozen drone-like device (voiced by Josh Brener, “Silicon Valley”) that has now woken up. Together, the two have the ability to join forces and merge into superhero Max Steel. Synergy!
If all this sounds terribly unexciting, that’s because it is, no matter what Hendler throws at the screen. Max Steel is rendered an uninteresting hero, and even worse, it’s not even Max’s fault. To have an engaging figure to root for, we first need something or someone to root against. The enemy in this case is vaguely defined as a pod of alien creatures who want to zap the remaining energy out of Max.
Having successfully directed the five part mini-series, “Halo 4: Forward Until Dawn,” Hendler seems more equipped to helm short stories. Or, at the very least, fractions of a larger narrative stretched out across multiple episodes, as in his TV series, “H+.” As it stands, “Max Steel” is unfocused from beginning to end. Despite what appears to be a paucity of material to work with, the film feels overwhelmed by itself.
In one scene Max is having boba tea with a high school crush; in the next, the world is ending. There’s no sense of time, place, or rhythm. The amount of scenes that are promptly ended by Max yelling, “Ahhh, I gotta go! Sorry!” are comical. So, too, is Steel, whose only purpose in the film is either to ask questions or to elicit introspection from Max. It’s like the Ellen Page character from “Inception,” reproduced in robot form. This is what happens with slipshod screenwriting goes unchecked.
Considering “Max Steel” was not screened for press, Open Road is keenly aware of what they have on their hands. The publicity tour for the movie was almost non-existent, and there’s been no mention of a potential sequel. All signs point to this being a one-and-done ordeal. Quite frankly, that’s probably best for all parties. If the past is any indication, Hendler, Winchell, Bello and everyone else involved have the capacity to create interesting, original, and engaged art. “Max Steel” is none of those things.