VOD film review: Choose or Die (2022)
Increasingly inventive visuals and conceits8
Anton Bitel | On 15, Apr 2022
Director: Toby Meakins
Cast: Iola Evans, Asa Butterfield, Eddie Marsan, Robert Englund, Kate Fleetwood, Ryan Gage, Angela Griffin, Joe Bolland
While Laura (Kate Fleetwood) and her teenage son, Gabe (Pete MacHale), argue aggressively in their large, luxuriously modernist home, Laura’s husband, Hal (Eddie Marsan), retreats into his den – and into childhood. For he has loaded up and is about to play a computer game from the 80s – the key era of nostalgia for him. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that, for all its basic graphics and green-on-black typology, Curs>r is no ordinary game. For it shows an explicit awareness of both Hal and his immediate environment, and even more impossibly is able to alter the material world around him – and very soon the simple-seeming binary dilemmas that its text poses to Hal become harrowing choices (on pain of death) as to which of Laura and Gabe will incur horrific, permanently scarring injuries.
From the opening scene, we know that Toby Meakins’ feature debut Choose or Die means business when it plays upon the torture porn conundrums of films like Tom Shankland’s WΔZ, Marcus Graves’ Choose and Taylor Sheridan’s Vile – only with an added supernatural element. Once started, this game has life-or-death stakes and a very cruel streak – and, now that it has Hal’s attention, it gives him another option: to continue the game or to make and distribute charmingly retro cassette copies. For, like the VHS-borne curse in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, this game wants to spread itself.
Three months later, we meet Kayla (Iola Evans, excellent), who is down on her luck. Though a talented coder and fixer of old tech, she can only get employment working hand to mouth as a cleaner in a mysteriously empty building owned by the significantly named corporation Kismet. She lives with her drug-addicted, barely present mother (Angela Griffin) in a dingy apartment block (also owned by Kismet) from which they are soon to be evicted – and ever since Kayla’s little brother drowned, neither mother nor daughter has been able to heal from the grief and guilt. So when Kayla finds a bootlegged cassette of Curs>r in the apartment of her game-designing friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield) and sees its advertised promise of a $125,000 prize for anyone who can “last 5 days” and “lift the curse”, she is hooked. Once she has digitised Curs>r and uploaded it to her laptop and phone, the game is on, and Kayla is set to realise, no matter how bad things might seem, just how much more she has left to lose.
Films based on video games are a dime a dozen and seldom good, not least because, as the video games themselves are typically already built from filmic tropes, it feels like watching a copy of a copy of a copy, with all the degeneration that that entails. Yet one should distinguish between the rather smaller set of films which are about games, and which blur the boundaries between play and life – films such as Steven Lisberger’s Tron, the various iterations of Jumanji and Zathura, Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates, Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace’s Game of Death, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Paul Davis’ Uncanny Annie, Matt Bettinelli-Olpen and Tyler Gillett’s Ready or Not and Scott Conditt and Jeremy Tremp’s Max Reload and the Nether Blasters. The game Curs>r is no pre-existing IP, but a pure invention of Choose or Die, preying upon its player’s weaknesses and traumas to maximise the pain, both emotional and physical, that it delivers.
Watching someone else play a video game can be tedious, but Meakins overcomes this with a varied and disorienting visual language. The film’s game sequences, which take place not online but in a manipulated version of the real world, find their own dream logic, capitalising on the player’s particular anxieties. These scenes are increasingly surreal, traducing spatiotemporal norms and building to a climactic “boss battle” where every stab and blow and shot must be counterintuitively self-inflicted to have any impact on the player’s opponent. Here, pain has a trickle down effect, unevenly distributed to others.
While at first it might seem to be offering pure 80s nostalgia – and even features a (literally phoned-in) vocal performance from none other than Nightmare on Elm Street’s Robert Englund – Choose or Die also comes with a sociopolitical subtext that is anti-nostalgic. For the game that keeps humiliating and harming Kayla crystallises a broader coded fate – or kismet – that sees her working beneath her abilities and living beneath her dignity, as the forces of 21st-century capitalism ensure that she is stuck in her place and under constant risk of losing even what little she has.
Here, Curs>r is both zero-sum game and metaphor for the structural powers that curse millennials such as Kayla to play by the rules of a Boomer-built system rigged unfairly against them. In the end, all Kayla has in the face of such loaded dice is her integrity, her wits and her desire not just to survive the game herself but to rebalance the odds for others. This is what makes Kayla not just a classic final girl, but also a genuine working class heroine, spearheading a new social revolution that may just, with time, radically overturn the status quo – with a vengeance. The last level of gameplay will pit our protagonist against a privileged white patriarch from Generation X, yet as Kayla herself – who has never even heard of Robert Englund – says of the Reagan era that sowed the seeds for her own immediate present-day misery: “Fuck the 80s!”