VOD film review: The Call Up
Matthew Turner | On 24, May 2016
Director: Charles Barker
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Chris Obi, Parker Sawyers, Dino Fazzani, Max Deacon, Ali Cook, Adriana Randall
Watch The Call Up online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / TalkTalk Player / eir Vision Movies / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Written and directed by Charles Barker, this low-budget British sci-fi flick feels oddly topical, what with Virtual Reality gaming headsets popping up in the news of late. In fact, the film draws on a long tradition of deadly video game movies (encompassing the likes of Tron and eXistenZ), although it ultimately fails to add anything new to the genre, despite its apparent potential.
Set in the near future, the film opens with eight seasoned online gamers (including Max Deacon as Carl, Morfydd Clark as Shelley and Douggie McMeekin as Adam) answering a mysterious ad that promises $100,000 to the winner of a new virtual reality game. Believing themselves to be beta-testing a state-of-the-art VR shoot-em-up, the players assemble in a sparkling white office building and don special suits and helmets, whereupon their surroundings transform into a standard, grimy, Call Of Duty-style scenario and they are instructed to shoot their way out of the building, which is swarming with terrorists.
The rules are quickly established: if you’re shot once, you lose your protective digital flak jacket; if you’re shot twice, you’re dead, unless somebody injects you with the virtual equivalent of a Power Up. However, when one of the players receives a fatal electric shock from his helmet after being shot for a second time, they quickly realise that they can’t remove their suits and are effectively trapped in the game, where they can all die for real.
Given its presumably very small budget, the film’s key strength lies in its eye-catching production design, particularly on the white-and-blue VR suits and the office building’s blank-looking interior. Cleverly, the film uses the levels of the building as the levels of the game, allowing for the same set to effectively be re-used multiple times – a top money-saving tip for any aspiring micro-budget filmmaker.
The key problem is the decidedly dull script, which throws up a handful of decent ideas, but fails to do anything interesting with them – one of the characters is obviously meant to represent the misogynistic attitudes behind the Gamergate controversy, but the film is content just to push that to its extreme and turn him into a full-on murderous scumbag, rather than explore it in any depth. Elsewhere, the characterisation doesn’t extend much beyond the expected stereotypes, with each of the characters coming off as disappointingly one-note, making it difficult to root for any of them to survive. (You can also predict the order in which they get killed off, based on how much dialogue each one has.)
On top of that, the action is unimaginatively staged, so that the shoot-out sequences come across as generic video game scenes, with a corresponding absence of tension. Similarly, there’s nothing particularly special about the game itself and even the in-game tasks (such as defusing a bomb) are dealt with in curiously flat fashion, rather than being used to heighten suspense. As a futuristic slasher movie, The Call Up just about does its job, but its simplistic script fails to properly exploit the premise, so it’s never quite as much fun as it should have been.