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edge staff writer


‘Choose or Die’ should have pressed reset

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Movies based on video games have a checkered history at the box office; they have traditionally not been known for their quality. Hollywood continues to struggle to find the secret sauce in converting characters and narratives from one medium to the other.

Movies ABOUT video games are something of a different animal – think “Tron” or “The Last Starfighter” or even “Ready Player One.” These are films that use video games as the foundation for the stories themselves, rather than the IP around which the story is built.

A new film that falls into that latter category is “Choose or Die,” currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by first-timer Toby Meakins from a screenplay by Simon Allen, it’s a horror film whose central conceit revolves around an obscure 1980s video game unearthed by a player hoping to solve it and get their hands on an unclaimed cash prize connected to said solution. But the game is cursed, capable of altering the player’s reality with horrifying results.

If you’re like me, that previous paragraph probably has you intrigued. It’s a compelling conceit for a film. Unfortunately, the execution isn’t quite up to snuff. “Choose or Die” can’t quite hold together, coming apart in the back half after a strong start – the third act in particular falls flat, never managing to give us the level of payoff promised by the film’s solid beginning.

A man sits in a room surrounded by vintage computer equipment. He boots up a text adventure game titled “Curs>r” and begins to play, only to quickly realize that his actions in the game are reflecting in his own reality. His bemused fascination quickly turns to horror, however, when the game demands that he make a choice with bloody consequences for himself and his family – and he MUST choose. Or die.

A few months later, we meet Kayla (Iola Evans). She’s struggling – she has a job she hates, cleaning the floors of a constantly-vacant office building; she’s trying to care for her sick mother Thea (Angela Griffin) while also keeping her clear of the sleazy drug dealer down the hall (Ryan Gage). She’s a gifted programmer who had to drop out of school to care for her mom, but she still maintains a friendship with a backroom hacker type named Isaac (Asa Butterfield), whom she visits on the regular.

One day, she’s visiting Isaac when she finds a box containing an old video game – like, on a cassette tape old – called “Curs>r” that purports to offer a cash prize to the person who solves it. She calls the listed number, discovering that it is still in service, with a recorded message voiced by none other than ‘80s horror icon Robert Englund. Kayla decides to take a shot at the game in an effort to claim the cash and help her mom.

But as she quickly discovers, this game is far more than she could have bargained for.

When she starts to play, she finds that the game is influencing her reality. The choices in the game are reflected in the real world – and these are not pleasant choices. In order to survive, she is forced to choose, with her choices causing great pain and suffering to those in her vicinity. Only then can she advance to the next round, can she continue to be considered a “worthy player.”

Understandably frightened, she enlists Isaac to help her navigate the deceptive simplicity of the game. But with each subsequent round – coming 24 hours after the one before – the choices become ever more personal, leading Kayla inexorably toward a final choice even as the people closest to her suffer the brutal and terrifying consequences of her journey.

“Choose or Die” sounded like it would be right up my alley. I’ve always had an affinity for movies about video games – particularly when said games have a larger impact on the world around our protagonist. And the idea of using a survival horror game as the conduit for a horror film is certainly an intriguing one, maybe even a great one.

Unfortunately, it is not a well-executed one.

The front half of “Choose or Die” works. We get an engaging setup, with a bit of mystery and high stakes and some surprisingly intense horror thrills. The pacing is brisk – the runtime comes in under 90 minutes – and we get some fun throwback aesthetics in the context of the game. Alas, when we start to delve into the why – the endgame, if you will – the film loses some steam, devolving into a final act that is largely unsatisfying (even if it does, somewhat inexplicably, leave the door wide open for some sort of sequel).

The performances are fine. Evans feels a bit unprepared to fully shoulder the load of carrying a feature film. She’s not bad – far from it – but there are moments where she doesn’t quite rise to the occasion and hold the screen in the manner in which she needs to. Butterfield is one of those actors whose career has taken some unexpected turns – he’s good here, but one wonders how he wound up in this movie at all. The rest of the supporting cast is adequate – everyone hits their marks and does their jobs, but no one really blows your hair back.

As first features go, “Choose or Die” is a strong effort, imperfect as it is. It’s clear that Toby Meakins has real talent, even if it isn’t always utilized to full effect here. And conceptually, Simon Allen’s script has a lot going for it, though it doesn’t totally hold together in the end. Both of these men are making their respective feature debuts with this project, though both have done TV and/or shorts work before. It’s indicative of real potential, making you look forward to what is to come.

“Choose or Die” is a flawed film, but one not without merit. If you squint, you can see the much better movie this might have been. It’s watchable, thanks to its brisk pace and intriguing central concept, but the uneven execution leaves you wondering if perhaps the filmmakers should have just pressed reset.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 18 April 2022 11:45


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