Back in 2014 I reviewed Ashens and the Quest for the Gamechild, a partly crowdfunded movie focusing on the famous YouTuber. Just over half a decade later a sequel has been produced, Ashens and the Polybius Heist.
In the interests of transparency, as with the original film I am one of the donators who helped this film get produced (not to overstate my personal contribution, which probably covered a plate of sandwiches).
The film opens some years after the previous one, though actual continuity call-backs are minor. Ashens now runs a small business that makes use of his bizarre skill-set to procure rare but useless items for clients. At the behest of his business partner Benny he chooses to hunt down the legendary arcade game Polybius, long rumoured to have mind altering effects on those who played it. In actuality the game is the work of Ashens’ absent father, who vanished whilst working on it. Seeking closure to his long standing trauma he and Benny gather up a team of individuals in order to attempt a once in a lifetime heist to steal the Polybius from an eccentric tycoon.
It’s hard not to notice that Polybius Heist has much of the same plot framework as Gamechild, especially the central plot thread of trying to locate a long lost gaming device that may have more sinister applications. However, there’s various signs here that lessons were learned from the production and feedback of the first movie to produce a much tighter effort. A definite plus for me is that the clumsy exposition I bemoaned last time has been near entirely removed. There is no character who feels like they’re simply there to prompt Ashens to dump all this information and instead new information is fed much more organically through conversations and story beats.
One thing that sadly hasn’t improved so much is tone. Ashens’ YouTube channel generally has an audience of teenagers up to people in their 40s and although the videos are generally silly there’s certainly a share of swearing and dark humour. The movie’s tone honestly often feels like it’s being produced for CBBC. This is a movie that has a joke about a keyboard playing fart sounds and a building known as ‘the B.U.M.’ and yet also a running joke about a sexual fetish for lawnmowers. It’s as if the creators wanted to create something in the vein of the Cornetto Trilogy (Hollywood formula juxtaposed by British trappings) but couldn’t get full support for that and so are stuck catering to a more childish audience.
That’s not to say that a lot of the humour doesn’t land, helped immensely by picking the cast much more selectively than Gamechild’s requirement of fairly random YouTuber cameos that tended to stop the plot. Dan Tomlinson’s Chef Excellence is given a reduced role as simply providing cash for Ashens’ menagerie whilst comedy actors such as Jarred Christmas and Katia Kvinge get to show strong talent. The heist movie formula requiring each of the team to bring a specific set of skills allows characters and actors to simultaneously shine (genuinely impressed at Daniel Hardcastle aka Nerd Cubed’s acting ability). Ashens himself does quite well and is a charismatic leading man, albeit in some of the more emotional moments the pathos doesn’t quite seem to escape paper. I’ve had the honour of meeting Stuart a few times at conventions and can tell you he’s quite good at improv comedy (speaking of which, an extended joke in the film feels like it draws from his interactions with more overbearing fans back when he still attended conventions). Robert Llewellyn also returns for a brief cameo as Ashens’ mentor and it’s clear the two actors have a rapport. It’s a sequence which highlights that the more gentle humour can work.
Sadly, there is one member of the team whose role made me fairly uncomfortable. Yiannis Vassilakis plays a character with the same forename, a mistakenly hired ‘Greece’ man who spends the film trying to learn English from audio tapes and struggling to understand what’s happening. Given everything that’s happened in the UK since 2016 this feels like a very tasteless gag, not helped by the ultimate punchline being obvious. Indeed that was a complaint I had a few times. Maybe it’s just because I’m a huge fan of cinema but more than once moments of foreshadowing felt too obvious, including a trick that gets used early on to throw us off a certain trail.
One thing I do feel shows growth from last time is the finale. Despite best efforts I always found the Gamechild finale underwhelming but here there’s actually a decent sense of grandeur which I could totally see at home in something like the post 2005 run of Doctor Who. Similarly we get another awesome animated opening sequence complete with original song, setting the tone for the movie in the tradition of James Bond opening sequences.
So where does this fall ultimately? I feel Polybius Heist does largely show growth from the production of Gamechild and whereas that was more a treat for people familiar with the Ashens YouTube channel this is a stronger film that stands much more confidently on its own. However, it sadly suffers from inconsistent tone and still feels like a stepping stone rather than a destination. Ashen and Barmania clearly work well together and I’d love to see more productions from them as they continue to hone their film making craft. Polybius Heist shows they have a natural aptitude for comedy cinema and are receptive to feedback. Give this a watch and you won’t feel robbed but might find it’s stolen your appreciation.
Ashens and the Polybius Heist is now available to purchase on a range of digital platforms including iTunes, YouTube and Amazon Video. Please consult the official website for the full selection.