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November 30, 2023

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750 VFX shots make for a visual treat in BGSU grad’s ‘Gauntlet’

Gauntlet film poster

Making a film with no budget is not an easy task. Filming it out of your garage on a green screen with over 750 visual effects shots? Even harder.

Jeff Loehrke’s film “Gauntlet” surpassed those obstacles over the 10 years it took to make. And while it certainly has the trappings of a no-budget film, the fact that Loehrke was able to pull it off with a coherent plot, effective acting and immersive visuals is a feat.

“Gauntlet” is heavily inspired by retro video games Loehrke grew up playing. The film follows Michael Rodina (Dylan Strechbery) as he is coping with the disappearance of his brothers, Gabriel (Austin Middleton) and Adam (Jeff Loehrke).

The brothers’ father created the Rodina gaming console (inspired by retro consoles like Atari), and when Michael boots one up, he is sucked inside and forced to compete in the titular Gauntlet, a series of levels that test a player’s various attributes like strength and agility, ultimately leading to fighting the game’s champion, Neyta.

Michael eventually discovers his brothers are trapped in the game as well, and the clock is ticking for the trio to return to the real world before their mother unplugs the console and unknowingly traps them in the virtual world.

The rest of the cast is filled out with the power-hungry Pixel played by Kelly Rogers and charismatic virus Suriv (it took me longer than it should have to get that) played by Jonathon Byrd.

Byrd’s performance is a particular standout, as he injects a lot of emotion into the maniacal Suriv as he tries to gradually bring the in-game world under his control.

While the rest of the cast doesn’t deliver particularly outstanding performances — possibly due to the sometimes cheesy dialogue — they serve the film well and hit the dramatic beats where they need to.

Loehrke, who graduated from BGSU in 2009, along with many others involved in the film, said he took inspiration from a variety of movies and games from his childhood, and the most obvious inspiration is 1982’s “TRON” (for my generation, think the 2010 sequel “TRON: Legacy”).

Instead of the light-cycle battles akin to the video game “Snake” seen in “TRON,” “Gauntlet” most prominently features a dueling game, where the players face off with knife-like lightsabers, shields and other weapons.

These dueling scenes, and the panning shots showing the arenas and game world, are where “Gauntlet” shines, and Loehrke and the crew’s VFX skills are on full display.

The best scene of the film happens about 45 minutes in, when two characters spar on a rooftop in 8-bit glory. The 2D fight is commentated by Suriv and makes for a scene that captures the fun modern video game movies often lack.

The fact that “Gauntlet” is an original IP — meaning it’s not based off of any existing franchises — gave Loehrke the necessary freedom to make a video game movie. He didn’t have to concern himself with staying true to a fan-favorite character and he wasn’t burdened by any preexisting rules of the video game, two obstacles video game movies often struggle with.

While the VFX are the star of the show (as it should be), the narrative is a bit convoluted at times. The throughline of the film is there, but the worldbuilding and lore can sometimes muddy the emotional tale at the core.

And as for the film’s ending, it was a bold choice. It didn’t stick the landing for me, mostly because it felt tonally inconsistent given the occasional humor in the script, and the dramatic points of the film clashing with the goofy dialogue.

The film could have ended about 10 to 15 minutes sooner, which would have cut out the odd ending. Instead, we were left with a twist that was surprising, not in a bad way, but not in a good way either.

But throughout its two-hour runtime, I kept coming back to the impressiveness of “Gauntlet.” Not in its story or characters, but that Loehrke achieved the dream of film students all over: he made a feature-length film.

Sure, it has flaws, most of which can be attributed to the lack of a budget. But the fact that Loehrke pulled off the 10-year commitment despite the hardships of making a film without the funding of a large studio or investors with deep pockets is something that cannot be understated.

It’s got easter eggs for fans of retro games, a serviceable story that can hold the film up and (I know I keep saying this, but I have to drive the point home) VFX that would catch the eye of anyone worth their salt in the film industry.

It’s not perfect, but that honestly doesn’t matter. “Gauntlet” is fun and the sheer amount of work put into it shows. The cast and crew clearly had fun making it and are rightfully proud of their work.

Loehrke is currently submitting the film for a festival run and hoping for a distribution after.

Read more about “Gauntlet.”

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