Netflix’s Choose or Die is a surprisingly well-made horror thriller. Modest in scope and budget, the film defies the expectations its premise affords; placing it in your queue would be akin to picking it up on a whim one night while perusing the aisles of a local video store. You weren’t expecting much after looking it over but still hoped that you paid for something decent. Thankfully, Choose or Die is more than just decent. It’s actually good.
Directed by Toby Meakins (Bite Size Horror), Choose or Die follows the story of Kayla (Iola Evans), a young woman struggling to support her ailing mother after dropping out of school. The difficulty of such an endeavor is readily apparent. Eviction notices and a dwindling supply of meds accompany Kayla during the day. At night, she works a low paying cleaning job in an effort to make ends meet. They never do, resulting in a tiresome cycle that merely prolongs the inevitable.
Kayla's financial issues are vexing to say the least. Things become much more dire, however, when her friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield) gives her an old adventure/survival video game he found called CURS>R. Seen as a means to an end--the game boasts a $100,000 prize for whomever can complete it--Kayla decides to give it a try, totally unaware that what happens in-game also happens in real life.
Choose or Die's premise is a familiar one. The list of films that incorporate a reality altering video game or supernatural element that forces people to engage in an activity is rather long. Because of this, it's easy to notice when Choose or Die’s story starts running parallel to what's come before. The protagonist(s) is continually prompted to choose between two outcomes. Neither are favorable and most result in death. Any desire to quit is quelled by raised stakes. The race to find answers begins in earnest before becoming downright desperate. Rinse and repeat.
Treading such a worn path, Choose or Die comes dangerously close to being mediocre at times. The film's solid performances and grounded subplot help to mitigate this feeling, though. Evans, for instance, does a great job portraying Kayla. Seemingly able to steal any scene she's in, her convincing display gives weight to certain moments, making it easier to suspend disbelief during a supernatural event. Butterfield isn't bad either. As Isaac, he often plays off of Kayla in a way that makes their onscreen relationship feel genuine. Angela Griffin, Eddie Marsan, and Ryan Gage (playing Kayla's mother, another cursed individual, and a drug dealer respectively) aren’t given a ton of screen time. That said, they also provided good performances.
While the cast certainly does its thing, the subplot concerning Kayla’s family is what holds everything together. These overarching issues anchor the main plot to reality and keep Choose or Die from becoming just about an evil video game. Though played straight, it's more Jumanji (1995) and less Stay Alive. That’s not to say that there's a ton of character building on display. Just that the characters seem to be concerned with more than just surviving the game.
Speaking of the game, the way in which it terrorizes the cast has to be commended. There isn't much in the way of scares or outright gore and a few scenes fail to convey the sense of dread that the movie is going for. Still, Choose or Die mostly works as a thriller thanks to a clever use of special effects. Because CURS>R is modeled after old text based adventure games, a lot of the violence is enacted by the cast after someone types in a response to a question (as opposed to some sort of digital monster). Some of the more elaborate deaths are done well enough and the transitions from real life to game are interesting. But it’s the practical effects and offscreen violence that are the most compelling.
Netflix’s Choose or Die is a solid thriller. It isn’t meant to be terribly scary--don’t expect a ton of jump scares or gory deaths--as the focus is aimed at presenting a bad and sometimes unsettling situation in an interesting way. The film does well to stay within its lane budget-wise while also providing a decent plot. Evans does a great job playing the film’s lead protagonist, Kayla. And while I would have loved for it to sport a more dreadful atmosphere, own its own, that doesn’t ruin any otherwise good experience. Essentially, Choose or Die is a solid B-film that's worth checking out on a Friday night.