What if playing a videogame could kill you in real life? It’s an intriguing premise if you’ve never seen a movie about a videogame before. Unfortunately, it’s well-worn territory thanks to films like Brainscan, Stay Alive, The Call Up, and a number of others. In Choose or Die, a new horror film on Netflix, an evil text adventure from the 1980s starts killing people in horrible if slightly boring ways when players dig it out of the bargain bin and start playing it.
Choose or Die begins with a mom and her son screaming at each other while a sad dad, played by Eddie Marsan (who is somehow constantly being cast as an American despite not doing a particularly believable American accent) retreats to his room to play a retro text adventure called CURS>R. The game is blatantly magic and immediately begins changing Eddie Marsdan’s reality based on his choices in the adventure. When he chooses to have a drink in the game, a drink appears in real life. When he puts his beer bottle down on his desk, the game’s text immediately reflects that. Huh, that’s odd, thinks Eddie Marsan upon witnessing actual magic. Then the game stops being cute and starts doing horrible things to Eddie’s annoying family members.
My first issue with the game of CURS>R is that it’s not much of a text adventure, more of a Would You Rather-esque series of horrible choices. Would you rather your asshole wife lose her ears or your asshole son lose his tongue? Eddie Marsan has to choose an option, or die—although that’s not even true because he doesn’t choose and he doesn’t die. The game chooses for him and his family suffers the consequences.
The other unrealistic part of CURS>R (apart from it causing Eddie Marsan’s family to begin mutilating each other) is that it doesn’t really feel like a game from the 1980s. For an evil text adventure, it’s far more helpful than real ’80s games like Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. CURS>R plainly lays out your options, giving you a clear choice, when in reality early text adventures were never that helpful. Figuring out what you could do in a game usually involved typing command after command until you stumbled onto the right one. Hell, there was a D&D-like text adventure called Swordthrust for the Apple II where you couldn’t even “drink potion” or “swallow potion.” The actual acceptable command was “imbibe potion.” Now that’s an evil text adventure.
Eddie Marsan isn’t the only one playing CURS>R. A young woman named Kayla finds a copy of the game at her friend Isaac’s house, because rather than have actual personalities both kids are heavily into 80s stuff like retro computing and Run-DMC. Discovering that CURS>R once advertised a $125,000 prize for beating it, they wonder if the money was ever claimed and decide to play. Weirdly, Robert Englund (the guy who played Freddy Krueger in a few dozen Nightmare on Elm Street films) literally phones in his role as “voice of Robert Englund on the phone” when the kids call up to see if the prize money is still available.
Things get gross but somehow stay pretty dull as Kayla begins playing CURS>R, first in a cafe (she loaded the game onto her laptop) where the game does terrible things to a barista based on Kayla’s choices. Then, while Kayla is working as a cleaner at an oddly empty highrise, the game starts playing on a nearby monitor, this time making Kayla control a giant rat that is trying to eat her mother. I could explain that more clearly but I’ll leave it to your imagination because your brain will probably create a more compelling scene than the movie did. Kayla and Issac also play the game together, leading to them walking around in an empty swimming pool filled with fog for about 10 minutes. Sorry, your imagination can’t help with this one.
Thankfully, Choose or Die does get a bit more fun in its second half. Kayla and Isaac do some vague hacking of the game’s audio signal and track down the place it was developed, conveniently right there in their home state. We learn the origins of CURS>R through a conveniently found betamax tape where an evil developer explains why the game is so gosh darn evil and then we get to watch someone eat their own arm and someone else vomit up a few hundred yards of magnetic tape. Kayla then must beat the game by surviving a boss fight, which is the only time the movie feels even remotely suspenseful and the first time the game introduces a twist with its rules.
As a horror film, Choose or Die simply isn’t scary, as a slasher it’s not really gross or creative enough with its kills, and as a videogame movie, the CURS>R game itself sorta sucks. I will say that that the film is pretty nicely shot, the performances are mostly solid (except for a laughably cheesy pimp Kayla has to contend with in a few scenes). There’s a welcome moment of social commentary when a white guy becomes enraged that white guys are longer the default hero of videogames, which, yes, they sure are mad about that, aren’t they?
Probably the best moment in Choose or Die is when Kayla gets to scream “Fuck the ’80s!” It’s a sentiment that I, a creature of the ’80s who has become quite weary of ’80s nostalgia, wholeheartedly agree with.
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