I remember stumbling upon Stewart Ashens’ Youtube channel back during the infancy of the popular platform and immediately finding the channel to be charming in a strange, almost tacky kind of way. In a sense, this echoed the very subject matter often put on display, on the now iconic, brown sofa that has become the symbol of the channel itself.
Flash forward over a decade later, with a feature film already under his belt, I’ve come to realize that, no it wasn’t the brown sofa that made Ashens great, but the person behind the camera, the true Stewart Ashens. So in that regard, going into his second movie, Ashens and the Polybius Heist, I was hoping to see more of that charisma translate into the film.
Thankfully, not only is Polybius Heist, a better film than its predecessor, it also captures the essence of the channel in a way that I feel can appeal to both fans of the Youtube channel and those just looking for a campy and mostly lighthearted film.
The movie opens on Stewart, as an exaggerated version of himself, trying to break into the premises of a Collector who is in possession of a rare and vintage game. One that apparently does not belong to him. This scene quickly explains to the audience who Stewart Ashens is, referencing both his Youtube Ashens channel in addition to setting up his in-universe Collections Agency plot point.
Audiences are then greeted with the opening sequence for the film, which does its best job in parodying the aesthetics of the Bond films. Unfortunately, I found this sequence to be a tad too long, in which point I began to notice the stilted animations of the obscured figures, something that ultimately robbed the opening of its charm.
Fortunately, moments like these were limited to whenever the Polybius Heist relied on special effects. The film as a whole looked great, with lighting and makeup that completely eclipses 2013’s Ashens and the Quest for the Gamechild. The titular Polybius is based on a real-world rumour surrounding an arcade cabinet that is said to have been discontinued due to concerns regarding mental fatigue. The film uses this as its central crux, which is an apt choice as it naturally feeds into Stewart Ashen’s love for obscure videogames and tat.
In the movie, the Polybius first catches Ashen’s attention when his business partner Benny (Eli Silverman) mentions that he has begun looking into it, after finding some old documents that he obtained from the university. Of course, this intrigues Ashens in wanting to pursue what in essence is the nerdy equivalent of an Indiana Jones treasure. Furthermore, without going into spoilers, the audience soon discovers that Stewart himself is intrinsically tied to the fabled Polybius machine. This eventually ties into the latter half of the film and its conclusion and helps give the movie an overall sense of purpose, beyond just finding an obscure videogame.
The bulk of the film has Ashen’s break into the facility in which the Polybius machine is held, which happens to be inside the main base of the film’s antagonist, Antony Agonist (Stuggy). Agonist is portrayed as the literal antithesis to Ashens, in that he is staunchly against retro tech, due to having to put up with too many hand-me-downs, as he explains in the movie.
From here, Ashens and the Polybius Heist does its best Oceans impersonation by gradually introducing the rest of the cast and the core members for that make up the heist team. The cast ranges from real-life friends and fellow YouTubers, such as Berry Lewis, to Robert Llewellyn of Red Dwarf fame.
My favourite scene in the film takes place during the heist, in which Jarred Christmas, who I believe plays himself and is the Mole of the group, tries to buy some time by chatting up another character. This scene quickly devolves into the two revealing to the audience, their strange lawnmower fetish. Somehow, this fits the weird and eccentric world of Ashens and the Polybius Heist and makes the scene genuinely funny.
This mix of talent somehow comes together better than expected, although no one, in particular, seems to steal the show. Instead, everyone involved does their job well and to the point, delivering a fun movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
My biggest gripe with the Polybius Heist comes in how the feature depicts both gaming and the Polybius itself. Firstly, is the depiction of the Polybius machine which seems to take the form of a Raspberry Pi board, rather than a traditional Arcade PCB. Perhaps this was intentional, but I feel it would have been better suited as something more akin to a real arcade board, or even the polar opposite, in something abstract, rather than it resembling readily available, existing hardware.
Finally, during a scene just before the heist, the core cast is seen playing a game on an older CRT-style TV. The game on display seems to be a made-up sprite-based FPS, with each of the players using everything from NES pads to a tablet. Again, perhaps this was intentionally poking fun at how bad gaming tends to be depicted in films, however, considering that is an Ashens movie, maybe a reliance on a more authentic and retro gaming setup would have been a better fit.