I can say with some degree of certainty that I am the target audience for Choose or Die, the Netflix film from director Toby Meakins about a woman whose decision to play an obscure, text-based survival game from the 1980s sets off a nightmarish adventure.
It’s not just me, though. Anyone who grew up during the heyday of game publishers like Infocom, obsessing over Zork and Planetfall while haunting the genre sections of the local video store, will likely feel a distinct, nostalgia-fueled attraction to the premise of Choose or Die. And while the film features some wonderfully retro elements — both gaming and horror — that hark back to those days gone by, its unwillingness to commit to that vibe is what prevents it from standing out now.
Directed by Meakins from a script penned by Simon Allen (The Watch, Das Boot), Choose Or Die casts Iola Evans (The 100) as Kayla, a broke computer-science student whose best friend Isaac, played by Hugo and Ender’s Game star Asa Butterfield, finds a rare, unopened copy of CURS>R, a horror game from the ’80s. Intrigued by the still-unclaimed prize money the game offers anyone who can finish it, Kayla restores the game and begins to play it. However, when the choices the game presents begin to have terrifying consequences around her, Kayla finds herself trapped in an escalating life-or-death contest.
The nostalgia factor is strong in the first act of Choose or Die, with Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) playing an ’80s-obsessed dad whose encounter with the game serves as an introduction to its scary potential, and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, making a voice-only cameo on a promotional, pay-by-minute phone line for the game that Kayla and Isaac discover. Even the visual interface with CURS>R has a great, ’80s-era look to it, full of green-hued, ASCII art and the sort of text-based animation that was the height of consumer graphics nearly a half a century ago.
Sadly, as Kayla gets pulled deeper into the game’s gruesome challenges, the film abandons the more retro elements of her interface with the game, pivoting to her smartphone and various other pieces of tech around her. Eventually, the story decides to ignore the conventions of the game entirely — and the rules it had established for victims’ encounters with it — and Kayla’s ordeal turns into a series of brutal contests and torture sequences. By the time Choose or Die reaches its third act, the film has left its original premise and aesthetic so far behind that it feels like a completely different movie.
It’s a shame, because the premise shows plenty of potential early on, and its cast has more than enough talent to sell whatever story might have resulted had it fully committed to the “cursed ’80s survival game” premise.
As Kayla, Evans carries the lead role well, finding the sweet spot between being a victim of the game and being smart enough to look for ways to beat it. Meanwhile, Butterfield hits all the right marks when some humor is called for in the story. Marsan is such a talented character actor that any role he plays is fun to watch, and although he’s not given a lot to work with in Choose or Die, he makes the most of it.
On the horror side, the tone of Choose or Die tends to lean more toward the gory than the shocking, with the game forcing people to do terrible things to themselves and others while the player watches. While the camera doesn’t linger excessively on these gruesome moments, they rarely happen off-screen — so there’s no shortage of bloody scenes as Kayla gets swept away in the game’s violent machinations.
Choose or Die isn’t a bad film, but it’s hard to ignore how safe it plays it. Never too retro, never all that scary or gory, and never fully embracing the elements most likely to hook you into its premise, Choose or Die should be a crazy trip down memory lane for ’80s kids, but it just ends up going places we’ve seen too much of lately.
Netflix film Choose Or Die premieres April 15 on the streaming service.
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