I’ll admit it—I’m a pretty nostalgic person. At twenty-seven, if someone handed me a CD-ROM (don’t care what it is, be it the Stella Luna Living Books game, Roller Coaster Tycoon 2, or Tarzan’s Action Game) you better believe I’m finding an outdated computer somewhere to shove that disc into. After watching Netflix’s latest horror Choose or Die, though, I did have to consider that maybe sometimes, it’s better to keep your head in the present than the past.
Choose or Die centers on Kayla (Lola Evans), a cynical, down-or-her-luck student who cleans windows to help provide for her grieving mother. Kayla, an aspiring programmer, visits her voluble and dorky friend Isaac (played with charm by Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield), who has just acquired a collection from a clearance lot. Digging through the dust-laced boxes, Kayla finds a retro video game called Curs>r, stored in a simple cardboard case that hawks a $125,000 reward to its winner. The twisted, bloody blend of Would You Rather and Tron entices the duo. Kayla calls the number on the box and is greeted with a recording of Nightmare on Elm Street’s Robert Englund, who warns them at “reality is cursed.” Taking on the challenge to further help her mother, Kayla tries the game out at a late-night café. She’s shocked when Curs>r begins to mold with reality, forcing Kayla to choose whether a waitress “cleans up” (eats glass to the point of suicide) or “breaks more” (smashes more glasses on the floor). As Curs>r continues to alter reality, shoving both Kayla and Isaac into distressing, often near-fatal situations, they realize that it may slaughter them before they can win.
Director Toby Meakin’s first feature film is a quiet, neon-drenched indie horror flick that’s an impressive and terrifying debut, to say the least. Evans and Butterfield have electric chemistry as Kayla and Isaac, two millennials searching for something more than what they’ve got in a grim and unforgiving world.
The film’s stylishly eerie atmosphere makes you feel as helpless and isolated as our protagonists, and it’s one of my favorite things about it. They race across an empty, blurred industrial landscape of an unknown city to find out the origins of the game and how to make it stop (all while giving off some serious Come True vibes, especially with the shots of Kayla on her bike with the film’s haunting synth-infused score cleverly laid underneath). The film just feels isolated, creepy, as if they’re in limbo—like there is nobody around to help them. It’s jarring, and in tandem, with the near-constant darkness that the film is drenched in, Choose or Die illustrates its brutality from the get-go.
As Kayla and Isaac travel further into this gory predicament, Curs>r only escalates, plunging the two friends into an enigmatic battle that they may not come back from. Something that I admired was the film’s kills. They’re horrific and unmerciful, echoing early Saw flicks. The homage is cleverly placed, given that Choose or Die is a film that revolves around such nostalgia of early horror media.
Despite how much I enjoyed Choose or Die, it feels rushed. Had it been longer, some of the characters and possible plotlines could be properly explored and flushed out. A lot is left unanswered or happens too abruptly (a certain death in particular, though I won’t reveal it here), which could have been easily solved with a lengthened runtime. The ending, to my disappointment, was the film’s weakest point, and that’s probably my biggest critique of this one. Meant to connect to the film’s opening, it felt feeble and uncertain, making me question the actions of some of the characters. Meakins should’ve slowed down and enjoyed the ride, tweaked the script a bit, and kept on going—because the foundation that he’s built for this horror is fantastic. I can’t wait to see what this director has got up his sleeve next, and here’s to hoping we get a sequel to this 8-bit nightmare so that we can determine what Kayla is truly up against.
I gotta say, the next time my brother and I are digging through the plastic, dusty bin that’s brimming with our childhood games, I may just think twice.
Thanks for that, Meakins.
Choose or Die
dir. Toby Meakins
Now streaming on Netflix.