choose or die is a fun but vague horror film netflix about an old decision-based video game that has the power to manipulate reality and cause damage. It’s a typically polished Netflix production, with great looks, a wonderful score, and an excellent lead performance, not to mention some pretty gruesome scenes that should satisfy any gore-hound. It also has a subtle but intriguing sociopolitical message, but at just 85 minutes (10 of which are credits), the film feels altogether too short, inconsequential, and is an extremely rare case of a horror film that has actually needs more time to tell his story.
Video games and choose or die
The history of the Internet is inextricably linked to the history of video games in fascinating ways. Some of the earliest computers, the massive EDSACs and Nimrods of the 1950s, were used for video games (OXO and Nim, respectively). Around 1976, one of the very first computer programming networks, ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), created time-sharing multiplayer games like Adventure in a colossal cave, one of the first text-based adventure games. ARPANET would go on to create the Internet as we know it.
Before video games had real graphics to speak of and evolved anywhere beyond 8-bit computing and sparse sound chip scores, gameplay generally revolved around simple choices — go left, go right; use a spell, throw a bomb; choose or die. They look extremely quaint today, where massive cutscenes and open-world epics are the norm, but they were pretty groundbreaking. That’s because video games tap into the most integral feature of the game of life itself: choice. This is probably why most video game movie adaptations disappoint; they lack the intrinsic element of interactive choice.
choose or die takes this decision-based platformer to the extreme, presenting a multi-level video game that essentially curses a person to choose between two grisly options, or die. At the beginning of the movie, for example, the game loads with the message “Reality is cursed”. A man must choose whether his son cuts off his wife’s ear or whether his wife cuts off her son’s tongue. If you don’t choose, death chooses for you. In that sense, every decision in the game is a kind of Sophie’s choice, a term from the haunting novel about a woman forced to choose which of her children a Nazi soldier kills; if she doesn’t choose, he will simply kill both of them.
A plot with horrible choices
Predictably, this sets up a lot of gruesome set-pieces, involving everything from a woman uncontrollably eating shards of broken glass to a woman choosing between jumping out of a high-level window or being eaten by rats. This kind of horrible paralysis of choice has been present in some major horror movies (and every second on the internet), from Seen for Would you rather and is probably so awful because of the personal interaction involved — something horrible doesn’t happen anymore for you, but rather, you are forced to choose something horrible. You would think that some level of control would improve situations, but no; free will actually makes it worse. Kierkegaard knew this when he wrote that “anxiety is the possibility of freedom” and that “anxiety is the vertigo of freedom”.
The main protagonist of choose or die, Kayla, is perfectly played by Iola Evans as a tough young woman with a much tougher life. She’s a computer whiz, but contrary to popular belief, society isn’t a meritocracy, so she works hard at a cleaning job trying to support her mother in their seedy, infested apartment building. drug. Kayla took her brother swimming one day and, losing sight of him for a few minutes, lost him in an accidental drowning, which irrevocably traumatized her mother, who now resorts to drugs. Into this already dark environment comes the even more torturous video game, which sends Kayla through four days of absolute hell.
She is friends with an equally brilliant computer programmer, Isaac (a moderate and rather lost Asa Butterfield), and recruits him to help her track down the rabbit trail of this reality-warping video game in time to save lives. The plot progresses in a fascinating way, but everything happens far too quickly in this film, perhaps to complete the ticking time bomb that is the game, which will come back online at 2 a.m. every day. Nonetheless, character development, emotional beats, and crucial narrative information are sped up to their detriment. In reality, choose or die might have worked better as a TV series, a mini-series where each episode corresponds to a different day (and level of the game).
As such, the ending is entirely rushed. The video game and its properties, its creator, and its future are not satisfactorily explained, and the actions of the characters advance the plot without much psychological or emotional justification. There are, however, some interesting developments and a unique “boss battle” that unfolds in certainly unexpected ways that comments on one of the film’s best themes: benefiting from the suffering of others.
We choose and die
The most disturbing and subversive part of video games in choose or die is perhaps the fact that it can actually benefit people; as various characters say, “The curse can become a gift.” Without giving much away, Kayla and Isaac discover that the pain and horror caused to someone else from the game can ultimately cause someone else the opposite, healing them or helping them to thrive in an almost magical way. The film, like the game it contains, highlights this aspect of the real world when it aptly says, “Reality is cursed.”
Maybe reality is cursed. Someone makes money if someone else spends it; a person eats a meal because something else died (from an animal to a plant; grass cries and cries when cut, so vegans aren’t off the hook); a man wears a cheap T-shirt or plays on his phone because foreign workers are paid slaves. Everything is born screaming, and the only common point between them all is death.
There’s an economic term for profiting from someone else’s suffering: a zero-sum game. In this game, someone wins because someone loses; this is how capitalism and most economies work. It’s a game, and even though it’s a game with hokey 8-bit graphics like the video game in choose or dieit’s still a deadly game.
The hasty and subversive end of Choose or Die
The film mostly features a person of color as the lead, and Kayla is a wonderful character (and Evans is a great young actor). Through this game and its continuation of the final battle, she displays the Foucauldian politics of power, sublimating the older white men who typically dominate these narratives (and the “games” of politics and economics). As one such man says towards the end of the film, “Are guys like me not allowed to be the fucking hero anymore? You know, in the 80s”, before being interrupted by Kayla saying with anger: “F**k the 80s.” As messy, rushed and confusing as the end of choose or die perhaps, it carries an important political message that is impossible to truly explain without spoiling anything.
choose or die is a polished debut from Toby Meakins and one imagines Simon Allen’s screenplay had more detail and world-building that could make sense of this over-edited production. The score by Liam Howlett (of great band The Prodigy) provides a booming and explosive electronic haze to the proceedings, perfectly complementing the tension while encapsulating and giving the middle finger to the nostalgia, a nice balance choose or die constantly overlaps, sometimes better than not.
It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it’s fast, gruesome fun with a surprisingly thought-provoking yet subtle political message. It just should have been longer. Reality is cursed, but sometimes a curse is a gift. choose or die is streaming on Netflix now.
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