Netflix’s Choose or Die (2022) Doesn’t Level Up Quite Well Enough For Its Premise
Title: Choose or Die
First Non-Festival Release: April 15, 2022 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: Toby Meakins
Writer: Simon Allen, Toby Meakins, Matthew James Wilkinson
Runtime: 84 Minutes
Starring: Iola Evans, Asa Butterfield, Robert Englund
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Down on her luck and desperate for some sort of respite, college dropout and side hustling coder Kayla (Iola Evans) decides to finish Curs>r, a mysterious 80s survival horror game, to win its unclaimed prize money. She soon finds out that this game is much more immersive than she ever could have anticipated, as it forces her to make impossible decisions lest she gets killed by the game itself. She enlists the help of her friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield) to crack the code in the game and finds that there is something even more unbelievable at play.
Middling video game horror Choose or Die is punctuated by a killer premise, stylistic directing, and a weak script.
What starts as a promising survival cyber horror film quickly turns to cheese as Choose or Die glides through its nonsensical story and poor character development. The Curs>r game itself adds plenty of visual style points for the film. The retro design and simple layout make it easy to understand the stakes and wander through an almost uncanny feeling of nostalgia. It looks like a game you could find at an arcade in a dusty machine near the back of the store. One of the biggest deterrents to the overall atmosphere of the film, however, are the moments that Kayla and Isaac share together. Their moments of joy feel odd given the horrors they experience and contrast with the intensity they feel right before entering another level of the game. Literally between night and day they act differently to where it feels like watching two different films at once.
Beyond Kayla, no other character gets the development they deserve. Supporting characters feel like non-playable characters and are just as disposable in her quest to find answers. Kayla herself has the potential to be someone interesting, but muddled writing leads to her being underdeveloped as well. While her motivations and past traumas are fully apparent, Kayla is not given much of a personality. She wants to continue her education in computer science, or a similar field, and she has a bit of a stubborn and protective streak. Beyond that, she is bland. There are no standout performances here, with Iola Evan’s portrayal as Kayla feeling rough and strained at times. Had any other character been in the spotlight if her, except Asa Butterfield’s Isaac, it is surely would have been a similar result.
Some moments feel out of place, almost as if Director Toby Meakins has so many ideas he wants to implement but cannot exactly place. A video game road trip and the death of a leading character both feel odd and misplaced, in its insertion for the former and in execution for the latter. These moments, and others, make it hard to stay invested in a narrative feature that refuses to pinpoint a solid tone or direction. Overall, it’s a lean campy mess with a hint of darkness that just doesn’t quite realize its potential before it ends on a poorly plotted cliffhanger.
The tiniest amount of social commentary crawls into Choose or Die in the form of Kayla. Nostalgia is pitted against modernity in Kayla’s final confrontation with the final boss. It’s during this spat, that the boss decries “why can’t people like me be heroes anymore?” It doesn’t take much discernment to realize Kayla’s ascendance from unwitting player to worthy opponent frustrates the boss due to her identities as a poor Black woman. Choose or Die fails to delve deeper into the idea, and it may be for the better. This battle is easily the weakest part of the film, as it leans into silliness too much to take seriously.
What Choose or Die does get right is its narrative on the rise from poverty. Kayla’s life has sucked. It’s clear from the introduction. She works a dead-end job she hates to scrape by on a crappy apartment to support her mother who turned to drugs after losing Kayla’s younger brother in a terrible accident that Kayla blames herself for. There’s this constant sense that Kayla is trying to prove to herself and her mother, that she can make it out and bring her family with her. The Curs>r game acts as a metaphorical re-enactment of the decisions Kayla, and others, must make every day to survive. The act of choosing between one terrible thing versus another, oftentimes at the expense of others perfectly mimics the insidiousness of poverty.
Choose or Die is much cooler in premise than in actual execution. Conceptually, it is a fast and, at times, fun horror film with potential to get gnarly. Its poorly developed characters and failure to adhere to its own rules make it a frustrating watch. It never quite goes as far as it promises while rushing to solve its half-baked mystery. An open ending leans into the possibility that sequels may come to light and fix some of the initial problems. Personally, I welcome it. Shaky execution should not hinder a director with a flair for style from learning from past mistakes or for others to improve on the lore. While it did not meet my expectations, I think that this video game horror film may be one you might want to choose if you are in the mood for some virtual terror and scares.
Overall Score? 5.5/10