Netflix’s Choose or Die somehow finds the dreary downside to a murderous video game
A vintage video game that offers users difficult Saw-style options should be more entertaining than this.
A woman wielding a kitchen knife spars with her teenage son about his father’s infatuation with the 1980s early on in Netflix’s shamelessly derivative new horror flick Choose or Die. The reclusive father (Eddie Marsan) retreats to his man-cave, a room filled with vintage video game consoles. He notices his old computer flickering green till it asks him, “His tongue or her ears?” “It’s either that or die.” What appears to be a morbid role-playing game quickly becomes a horrifying reality: the option he chooses will result in an actual punishment performed on either his wife or son.
In Toby Meakins’ Choose or Die, the fetishization of the 1980s — its trends and pop culture, particularly movies and music — is reset to terrifying ends. Unlike, instance, Ready Player One, Simon Allen’s light narrative does not fully embrace the decade. Sure, there are obvious allusions to A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gary Newman, and industrial music musician Fad Gadget throughout the film. Liam Howlett of The Prodigy even supplies the film’s synth soundtrack. However, Meakins and Allen want to investigate the inherent dangers of living solely in the past. It’s a brilliant lesson hidden by a cheesy writing that feels like Allen is overly proud of his self-importance.
The idea is essentially a more terrifying version of Jumanji. Kayla (Iola Evans) quits her janitorial job cleaning an empty office building ironically called “Kismet” three months after the film’s opening events. She’s a recent college dropout who knows a thing or two about motherboards and code and is seeking for a job in programming while caring for her ailing mother, who is hooked to unnamed illicit narcotics. Kayla’s younger brother perished in the neighborhood swimming pool, and the two haven’t been the same since. When Kayla isn’t at home, she spends out with Isaac, a bashful, lovesick fellow programmer and game creator (Asa Butterfield).
Kayla comes upon an ancient game named “Curs>R” while sorting through Isaac’s recent rummage sale purchases. It offers a top prize of $125,000 to the winner. When she dials the hotline, she is welcomed by the voice of Nightmare on Elm Street actor Robert Englund, who appears in a cameo as himself. Kayla repairs and plays the defunct game, believing it may still be worth money, resulting in a chain of tragic events that endangers her and everyone around her.
Choose or Die is an 84-minute film that relies on fast, solid storytelling. Evans, an unexpected addition, gives Kayla a vibrant inner life. She’s a bloated mass of worry and strain, all filled out over her hardened visage. Her performance begs for other elements to feel equally elevated, a request the film can’t fulfill due to its aggravating simplicity. In this sense, one of the film’s worst offenders is the ambiguous character Lance (Ryan Gage), who may work in the building, may be in a sexual connection with Kayla’s mother, and is undoubtedly her dealer, but who remains a cartoonish trash predator barely pretending reality.
Given the film’s small cast and scope — there are only a few sets, which likely made pandemic filming simpler — Kayla and Isaac’s connection must carry the narrative. However, their poor interpersonal dynamics undermine their trustworthiness. Kayla, for example, plays the Curs>R game in a restaurant. As she plays, she realizes how her gameplay decisions might bend reality, prompting a waiter to drink a glass. (The ASMR sound design in this scenario makes me sick.)
She is shocked by the encounter and thirsty for information about the game’s origins. When Isaac, perplexed, offers to find answers, she sneers, “Yeah, you go do that.” You’re really very intelligent.” It’s never obvious why she’s so combative. She’s so casually rude to Isaac that it makes you wonder how the two met or how they’re still friends. Because of this weakness, any relationship between them is a perplexing possibility.
When Allen and Meakins joyfully craft shocks based on Kayla’s sadness over her brother’s loss, Choose or Die is at its best. One scene takes place in an abandoned swimming pool, which is ornamented with a blinding fog and green shocks of light. It has among of the film’s finest jump scares, as the sound compensates for the audience’s obstructed eyesight. It’s evident how Meakins intends to demonstrate the hazards of living in the past, and how unresolved torments can gnaw at people, in this horror, which feeds off Kayla’s anguish and sets up an impossible dilemma surrounding her brother’s ghost. If the film maintained in this mode, it would be a moving metaphor. However, Meakins and Allen can’t seem to let well enough alone.
The last act of Choose or Die deviates dramatically as the filmmakers attempt to apply rationality to their crazy notion. It’s an unusual choice, given that Jumanji feeds on the unsolved mystery of the boardgame’s genesis. Instead, the filmmakers add a macabre history to the game, which only serves to confuse the atmosphere and tone. Kayla’s confrontation with the proverbial final boss, a totemic version of a fragile white man alarmed by society’s increasing hunger for cultural diversity, and the idea that people like him are more impediments to people of color than white knights riding in to save the day, pushes them even further toward profundity. “Aren’t folks like me supposed to be heroes any longer?” he complains.That remark falls with a thud in a closing act that takes itself far, far too seriously for a film that gave very little context for such a large symbolic message.
Choose or Die by Meakins might easily be the next grimly entertaining horror franchise, continuing up where the expansive Saw or Escape Room films left off. However, the filmmakers’ hunt for deeper meaning appears contrived and overbearing, and it overpowers the film’s adventurous energy in the first half. This is, if anything, a terrific starting point for Evans, who never wavers, even when everything around her does.
Choose or Die is now available on Netflix.