Choose or Die is a fun but vague horror movie from Netflix about an old branching decision-based video game that has the power to manipulate reality and cause damage. It’s a typically polished production from Netflix, with a great look to it, a wonderful score, and great lead performance, not to mention some pretty ghastly scenes that should satisfy any gore-hounds. It also has a subtle but intriguing sociopolitical message, but at just 85 minutes though (10 of which are credits), the film feels entirely too short, inconsequential, and is an extremely rare case of a horror flick actually needing more time to tell its story.
Video Games and Choose or Die
The history of the internet is inextricably tied up with the history of video gaming in fascinating ways. Some of the earliest computers, the massive EDSAC and Nimrod 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 Colossal Cave Adventure, one of the first text-based adventure games. ARPANET would go on to create the internet as we know it.
Before video games had any real graphics to speak of, and evolved anywhere past 8-bit computing and sparse sound chip scores, gameplay usually revolved around simple choices — go left, go right; use a spell, throw a bomb; choose, or die. They seem extremely quaint today when massive cut-scenes and open-world epics are the norm, but they were pretty revolutionary. 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 platform to the extreme, presenting a multi-level video game that essentially curses a person into choosing between two grisly options, or dying. In the beginning of the film, for instance, the game loads with the message, “Reality is Cursed.” A man has to choose whether his son cuts his wife’s ear off, or his wife cuts his son’s tongue out. If you don’t choose, death chooses for you. In this sense, every decision in the game is a Sophie’s Choice of sorts, a term stemming from the haunting novel about a woman forced to choose which of her children a Nazi soldier; if she doesn’t choose, he’ll just kill both.
A Plot With Horrifying Choices
As would be expected, this sets up a great array of gruesome set pieces, involving everything from a woman uncontrollably eating broken shards of glass to a woman choosing between jumping from a high-level window or being eaten by rats. This kind of awful paralysis of choice has been present in some great horror films (and every second on the internet), from Saw to Would You Rather, and is probably so horrifying because of the personal interaction involved — something awful is no longer just happening to you, but rather, you are forced to choose something awful. One would think that some level of control could make situations better, but no; free agency actually makes things worse. Kierkegaard knew this when he wrote that “anxiety is freedom’s possibility,” and that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
The lead protagonist of Choose or Die, Kayla, is excellently played by Iola Evans as a tough young woman with a much tougher life. She’s a computer genius, but, contrary to belief, society is not a meritocracy, so she toils away in a cleaning job trying to support her mother in their dingy, drug-infested apartment building. Kayla took her brother swimming one day and, losing sight of him for a few minutes, lost him to accidental drowning, something that irrevocably traumatized her mother, who now resorts to drugs. Into this already bleak environment comes the even more torturous video game, which sends Kayla through four days of absolute hell.
She’s friends with an equally brilliant computer programmer, Isaac (a subdued and rather wasted Asa Butterfield), and recruits him to help her follow the rabbit trail of this reality-bending video game in time to save some lives. The plot progresses in fascinating ways, but everything happens much too fast in this film, perhaps to complement the ticking time-bomb that is the game, which will come back online at 2am every day. Nonetheless, character development, emotional beats, and crucial narrative information is sped through to their detriment. In fact, Choose or Die may have worked better as a TV series, a miniseries 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, creator, and future aren’t satisfactorily explained, and the actions of the characters advance the plot without much psychological or emotional justification. There are some interesting developments, though, and a unique ‘boss battle’ which plays out in certainly unexpected ways that comment 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 the video game 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 which is caused to someone else from the game can ultimately cause the inverse to someone else, healing them or helping them prosper in practically magical ways. The film, like the game within it, highlights this aspect of the real world when it fittingly 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 animal to plant; grass screams and cries when it’s cut, so vegans aren’t off the hook); a man wears a cheap T-shirt or plays on his phone because overseas workers are paid slave labor. Everything is born screaming, and the only commonality between them all is death.
There’s an economic term for benefiting from someone else’s suffering: a zero-sum game. In this game, someone wins because someone loses; This is how capitalism and really most work. It’s a game, and even if it’s one with hokey 8-bit graphics like the video game in Choose or Dieit’s always a deadly game.
The Rushed, Subversive Ending of Choose or Die
The film importantly features a person of color as its lead, and Kayla is a wonderful character (and Evans is a great young actor). Through the medium of this game and her pursuit of the final battle, she displays the Foucaultian politics of power, sublimating the older, white males who usually dominate these narratives (and the ‘games’ of politics and economics). As one such man says near the end of the film, “Aren’t guys like me allowed to be the f**king hero anymore? You know, in the ’80s,” before being cut off by Kayla angrily saying, “F **k the ’80s.” As messy, rushed, and jumbled as the ending of Choose or Die may be, it does carry an important political message that’s impossible to truly explicate without spoiling anything.
Choose or Die is a polished first film from Toby Meakins and one imagines the script from Simon Allen had more details and world-building which could make sense of this overly-edited production. The score from Liam Howlett (of the great band The Prodigy) provides a booming, bombastic electronic haze to the proceedings, perfectly complimenting the tension while both encapsulating and giving the middle finger to nostalgia, a fine balance Choose or Die constantly straddles, sometimes better than not.
It isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s some quick, gruesome fun with a surprisingly thought-provoking but subtle political message. It just should’ve been longer. Reality is cursed, but sometimes a curse is a gift. Choose or Die is streaming on Netflix now.
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