Early on in Netflix’s proudly derived new horror film Choose or die, a mother who wields a kitchen knife, argues with her teenage son over his father’s obsession with the 1980s. The reclusive father (Eddie Marsan) hides in his man cave, a room full of retro game consoles. He sees his old computer flickering green until it displays a question: “His tongue or her ears? Choose or die.” What at first seems like a morbid role-playing game becomes a terrifying reality: the option he chooses will materialize in actual punishment of his wife or son.
The fetishization of the 1980s – its trends and popular culture, particularly film and music – is explored in Toby Meakins’ Choose or die. Unlike, say, Ready player one, Simon Allen’s light writing doesn’t quite revere the altar of the decade. Sure, open references to A nightmare on Elm Street, Gary Newman and industrial music artist Fad Gadget proliferate throughout the film. The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett even provides the film’s synthesizer music. But Meakins and Allen want to question life’s inherent horrors solely in the past. It’s a smart lesson obscured by a cheesy script that feels like Allen is taking too much pleasure in his self-perceived importance.
At its core, the premise is an even more nightmarish twist jumanji. Three months after the film’s opening events, Kayla (Iola Evans) quits her janitor’s job and cleans an empty office building aptly named Kismet. Recently dropped out of college, she is a genius with motherboards and programming who is looking for a job as a programmer while taking care of her ailing mother who is addicted to unspecified illegal drugs. The couple haven’t been the same since Kayla’s little brother drowned at the local swimming pool. When Kayla isn’t home, she hangs out with another programmer and game designer, the shy, lovesick Isaac (Asa Butterfield).
While browsing through Isaac’s recent junk purchases, Kayla comes across an old game called “curs>r.” It promises a grand prize of $125,000 for the winner. When she calls the hotline, she is greeted by the voice Nightmare on Elm Street star Robert Englund, who plays himself in a cameo appearance. Believing that the defunct game still has some potential for money, Kayla repairs and plays it, leading to a confluence of horrific events that put her and everyone around her in danger.
At 84 minutes, Choose or die is a whip-cracking film grounded in snappy, robust storytelling. Evans, a surprise newcomer, gives Kayla a rich inner life. She’s a bundle of stress and exhaustion, all on her hardened face. Her performance begs that other components around her feel similarly sublime, a request the film is unable to fulfill due to its frustrating simplicity. In that regard, one of the film’s biggest offenders is wishy-washy character Lance (Ryan Gage), who may be working in the building, may be in a sexual relationship with Kayla’s mother, and is definitely her dealer, but as a cartoonist, Garbage Robber languishes, who hardly feigning credibility.
Given the film’s tiny ensemble and scope — there are few sets, which likely made filming the pandemic easier — Kayla and Isaac’s relationship has to carry the story. But her weak interpersonal dynamic belies credibility. At a diner, for example, Kayla taps into this curs>r Game. As she plays, she notices how it can distort reality through her game choices, resulting in a waitress gulping glass. (The ASMR sound design in this scene turns your stomach.)
The incident leaves her shaken and desperate for answers about the game’s origins. When a confused Isaac promises to find answers, she sneers, “Yeah, do that. You’re so damn smart.” It’s never clear why she’s so argumentative. She is so casually cruel to Isaac that it begs the question of how the two ever met or how they are still friends. This lack leaves the plausibility of a romance between them as a head-scratching development.
Choose or die is best when Allen and Meakins blissfully create horror images based on Kayla’s grief at the death of her brother. A set piece adorned with a blinding mist and flashes of green light is set in an abandoned swimming pool. It features the film’s best jumpscares while the sound takes over the audience’s obscured vision. In this terror, which feeds on Kayla’s trauma and poses an impossible choice around her brother’s mind, it’s clear how Meakins seeks to explain the pitfalls of living in the past and how unresolved anguish can eat away at people. If the film stayed in that register, it would suffice as a stirring allegory. But Meakins and Allen can’t leave enough alone.
The last act of Choose or die gets wildly out of whack as the filmmakers try to add logic to their absurd concept. It’s an odd move when you think about it jumanji, for example, thrives on the unsolved mystery of the board game’s origins. Instead, the filmmakers add a dark backstory to the game that only messes up the mood and tone. They further reach depth through Kayla’s confrontation with the proverbial final boss, a totemic version of a frail white man alarmed by society’s increasing hunger for cultural diversity, and the idea that people like him are more obstacles to people of color than they are white knights, they ride in to save the day. “Aren’t guys like me allowed to be heroes anymore?” he complains. That line lands with a thud in a finale that takes itself far, far too seriously for a film that offered very little scope for such a grand representative statement.
Meakins Choose or die could easily be the next grimly funny horror franchise that picks up where the sprawling Saw franchise or the Escape Room movies left off. But the creators’ search for deeper meaning feels strained and over the top, overwhelming the adventurous spirit of the film’s first half. If anything, this is at least a good starting point for Evans, who never falters even when everything around her does.
Choose or die now streaming on Netflix.
https://www.polygon.com/23027310/choose-or-die-review-netflix Choose or Die Review: Netflix takes the fun out of a killer video game