Film Review – Choose or Die
Choose or Die
Choose or Die (2022) wears its influences so blatantly on its sleeve that it basically does the cinematic version of a cover song. It’s so invested in the horror films of the 1980s and ‘90s that it suffers from an identity crisis. We see this early on, as a large poster of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is plastered against a wall in full view. If that isn’t obvious enough, Mr. Krueger himself, Robert Englund, lends his voice – rife with all the dastardly menace we’re accustomed to. It blends horror and technology in the way older productions tried to utilize the dawn of the internet and digital age. Anyone remember The Lawnmower Man (1992) or Videodrome (1983)? That’s a little bit of what we’re getting here.
The big source of inspiration is the Wes Craven classic, particularly in how the terror resides in a dreamworld. But unlike Elm Street, this version vacillates between maintaining its own rules and diving headfirst into crazy town. It wants to be a legitimate mystery/thriller but also an unnerving fantasy. Sadly, it ends up being neither. The direction (Toby Meakins) and writing (Meakins, Simon Allen, Matthew James Wilkinson) establishes the stakes but has nowhere to go with it. The narrative continuously drops our heroes in zany situations but grounds them with statutes, hindering the entire piece from taking off into chaos. This all leads to a climax that feels clunky and awkward instead of terrifying.
The main gimmick features a fictional video game called “Curs>r.” It plays as one of those old school, text-based games where the computer gives an option and the player types in their response. How the game plays out is determined by the choices the player makes. In this world, however, the choice is far more ominous. Here, the player’s decision will put someone they know in harm’s way – whether it be the loss of a limb or straight up death. As the title suggests, a player cannot simply stop playing, lest they put themselves in jeopardy. It’s an impossible situation in which every option is a bad one – think Saw (2002) but with retro, floppy disk computers.
There is an inherent and long-lasting issue with movies featuring characters staring at screens: It’s not very interesting. Visually, seeing someone in front of a computer is not as suspenseful compared to physically interacting with their environment. Regardless of how stylized the production tries to make these scenes, they never really play all that convincingly. Choose or Die suffers from the same problem. The production tries to work around this by melding it with acts of horror. A character will start playing the game only to look up and see their surroundings changed as if they have stepped into an alternate dimension. Sadly, the construction of these sequences leaves much to be desired. There are some good bits, such as the diner scene when a helpless waitress is forced into committing gruesome acts. But many of the other examples feel oddly…stale. Perhaps due to time and budget issues, a lot of the horror is downplayed, either masked in fog or obscured with rapid editing. Seeing characters digitized as if they climbed out of a TV screen does not muster chills as it does passing interest.
Kayla (Iola Evans) is a young woman dealing with several personal hardships. She works a night job cleaning empty office buildings. At home, unpaid bills stack up while her mother suffers from what appears to be a crippling depression. We learn that a sudden and devastating tragedy befell Kayla’s family, and the trauma of that event has imprinted on Kayla’s very existence. Kayla’s best friend is computer programmer Isaac (Asa Butterfield), who spends his days at home shuffling through his collection of old games, music, and magazines – all while expressing a less than subtle crush on Kayla. It’s through Isaac that Kayla discovers the “Curs<r” game. Soon enough, Kayla goes from a mundane life to one on the edge of disaster, as she gets stuck playing the game and having to unravel the mystery behind it all.
Evans does an admirable job in the lead role, and the writing establishes her character well enough to understand the ghosts haunting her. But the narrative doesn’t provide her much to work with. The frights – already tampered down to begin with – starts and stops in repeating fashion. It’s a cycle of Kayla playing the game, getting transferred to a nightmare world, and getting sucked back into reality at the nick of time. You know when horror movies advertise a bone-chilling experience only to keep most of the scares off screen? That’s what happens here. We eventually get to a climax that is supposed to be thrilling but ends up being clumsy. There’s a slap-sticky, screwball comedy vibe in how the final showdown unfolds. Kayla’s tangible world and the fantasy realm of the game create a dynamic that would be funny if it weren’t so unmemorable.
Nostalgia is a powerful tool for both good and bad. On one hand, it helps inspire artists to create new and creative takes using familiar aesthetics. On the other, it is crutch to keep us stuck in the past. Choose or Die belongs in the latter category. It recycles too many ingredients without adding enough of its own personality. We end up wanting to revisit the very properties it borrows from. We are nearly four full decades removed from the era this film calls back to – at some point we have to move on, don’t we?