Earlier this year, Netflix divided horror fans with its Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel. Now its latest original movie looks to tap into a mix of early 90s techno-horror and some Wes Craven-inspired fantasy-horror. Originally titled CURS-R, Choose or Die marks the directorial debut for Toby Meakins. Whether the title change is an improvement for the cursed video game thriller is debatable. Arguably, it’s concerning that the streaming platform’s biggest creative input was a needless switch on names. Throw in the poorly timed Good Friday release date and it’s not surprising that critics were unimpressed.
Kayla and her mother, Thea, are struggling to put their lives back together again. After her brother’s drowning death, Kayla toils as a cleaner to pay for school while her mother lapses into addiction. When her friend, Isaac finds an old interactive computer game called CURS>R Kayla hopes its uncollected prize money can offer a new future. But the game lives up to its title, bending reality as it forces Kayla into a twisted game where her choice in the game unfold in the real world.
Choose or Die Can’t Quite Level Up After Promising Start
Things start promisingly enough as Choose or Die immediately kicks off its premise with a disturbing opening scene. First-time director Toby Meakin shifts quickly to another rapidly escalating demonstration of his movie’s cursed game. Like its prologue, Choose or Die taps into grim, squirming horror here. Moreover, Meakin proves to be quite capable behind the camera framing his shots to capture Kayla’s bleak day-to-day reality. As the story progresses at a quick clip, however, Choose or Die struggles to maintain its early tension. Eventually Meakin sort of rights the ship with a somewhat rousing climax that’s still reaching for a tone it can’t quite re-capture. If it’s not as cartoonish as 90s techno-horror movies like Brainscan or Ghost in the Machine, Choose or Die feels as disposable.
… Choose or Die struggles to maintain its early tension.
Despite its trim runtime, Choose or Die feels also unfocused. Writer Simon Allen has no shortage of ideas but mostly half bakes each one. With its retro-80s ‘choose your own adventure’ game alongside Robert Englund’s voice cameo you’d expect the thriller to lean hard into the decade’s style. And to some extent, Meakin blends some of Craven’s Elm Street and Shocker fantasy-horror into Choose or Die. But he never re-captures the aesthetics of the era like the similarly-themed Beyond the Gates. Instead the techno-thriller lapses into Saw territory in its climax minus the intense gore. Other interesting ideas – its retro-game collector subculture or the predator-prey relationship of Kayla’s marginalized existence – are left untapped.
Choose or Die Gets a Boost from its Strong, Young Cast
Both lead performances keep Choose or Die afloat even if you’re considering flicking it off. Cinephiles may immediately recognize Asa Butterfield from either his child actor roles like Ender’s Game or Hugo or his role on Netflix series, Sex Education. Though Butterfield’s “Isaac” likely represents an idealized version of a ‘gamer nerd’, his performance overcomes the screenplay’s limitations. That is, Butterfield makes his character inherently sweet and likable lending the movie an additional emotional core. If it’s not the starring role, Butterfield makes the most of his screen time, mostly hiding his British accent.
…if the story is forgettable, her [Evans] Kayla feels much more layered.
Most of Choose or Die heavily relies on relatively newcomer Iola Davis. On one hand, Allen’s story feels like it lets Evans down. There’s some promise of a character arc that’s never capitalized on. Nevertheless, Evans turns in a strong performance that garners audience sympathy – if the story is forgettable, her ‘Kayla’ feels much more layered. You may forget much of Choose or Die, but you’ll likely remember Evans. And horror fans shouldn’t get too excited. Though the Netflix original features horror icon Robert Englund, it’s a voice cameo and an all too brief one.
Choose or Die Feels as Second-Hand as its Cursed Game
At a brisk 84 minutes, Choose or Die is at least not going to waste anyone’s time. Strong performances from the leads and a handful of decent jumps don’t compensate for a derivative story but justify the time spent watching. Still seasoned horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by the tepid kills that accompany the fusion of Saw and Jumanji. Arguably, Choose or Die is good sleepover fare for early teens unfamiliar with the movie’s influences. Despite its 80s throwback references, consider this one a more modern update of 90s techno-horror movies like The Lawnmower Man and Brainscan.
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