The recent Netflix horror flick Choose or Die can’t quite decide what its message is. In a pivotal moment, one generally unsympathetic character—an older white man—asks protagonist Kayla (Iola Evans), a young Black woman, “Aren’t guys like me allowed to be the fucking hero anymore?” In response to that comment, plus another about the superiority of the eighties, Kayla shouts, “Fuck the eighties!”
But the movie itself doesn’t seem to want to say “fuck the eighties.” It revels in its references, and its retro imagery; it harkens back not just to eighties horror classics- Robert Englund shows up for a couple of voice cameos- but to early digitally-oriented sci-fi flicks like Tron, The Matrix, and even Hackers. It’s a story that claims to be against nostalgia while still trading in it.
The film revolves around Kayla, a working-class college dropout and computer programmer who finds a copy of an old computer game called CURS>R with a still-unclaimed cash prize. She wants the prize so she can get her sick mother, Thea (Angela Griffin) out of an abusive relationship and a run-down apartment so that they can both start recovering from the accidental death of Kayla’s little brother, Ricky (Kaylenn Aires Fonseca). As she plays, though, Kayla realizes that the game is interacting with the real world in surreal, dangerous ways.
Sometimes, the game seems to act as a metaphor for Kayla’s grief—it forces Thea to harm herself and uses images of Ricky as a prop to torture Kayla—but it doesn’t actually engage with that grief, nor does Kayla attempt to turn the game into a tool to help herself heal. At other times, the metaphor looks like it might lean toward trauma (specifically the traumas of poverty or abuse) or inequality—towards the end of the movie, Kayla makes a huge claim about the people who “deserve” to be drawn into playing CURS>R, but neither she nor the movie makes a coherent argument about who those people actually are beyond the movie’s two specific villains. People who abuse power? Maybe. People who are stuck in a past that relies on racism and sexism? Sure. But the message gets muddled through the film’s inability to decide whether nostalgia—even if it’s just for cool aesthetics—is ultimately okay or not.
There are indeed some cool (but too brief) visual moments: Kayla’s home, ravaged by the game’s mechanics, blends the digital with the “real-world” in some really compelling ways, and another scene—which may very well have blown the effects budget—lights up Kayla’s workplace with colorful lights as a sign that serious danger is imminent, capturing a sense of both awe and terror. The leads are well-cast: Evans holds up the movie’s emotional spine basically single-handedly, and Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield is immensely cute and charming as Isaac, her programming partner in crime. Otherwise, the acting is solidly okay. The soundtrack is excellent, especially in the movie’s first half.
Still, questions about the narrative and its purpose distract from the more fun elements. Returning to nostalgia, the game itself isn’t limited by its medium; it travels easily among retro computers, modern computers, and phones, contributing to the incomprehensibility of the film’s questions about what kind of harm technology can do. Perhaps most frustratingly, though, Kayla is never actually forced to make any really tough choices. By the time she figures out the game’s mechanic—that she has to harm people to win—she’s already figuring out ways to work around it. One point in Kayla’s favor as a smart, charismatic protagonist, but a point against the game’s relative scariness (which is a big point for a horror movie). She never truly finds herself in a trolley problem; she always figures out a way around the situation, or at least around actual culpability.
Choose or Die’s most bizarre element is its insistence on being an American Movie. Though the movie was filmed in London with a mostly-British cast and crew (including director and co-writer Toby Meakins), the story inexplicably claims to take place in the US, American accents included. I can’t help but think everyone—cast, crew, viewers—would be a little less distracted if they were allowed to cool it with the pretense.
Choose or Die could have been scarier or it could have been campier, but it chose neither, which cost it a significant bit of vitality. The flashy ending boss battle is fun, with an interesting twist, but maybe not totally earned. Ultimately, the screenplay could have gone through a few more drafts. It won’t be a classic, but it’s a fun one-off watch if you’re craving something slightly scary and just a little eye-roll-inducing.
Choose or Die is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.