This article contains major Choose or Die spoilers.
Choose or Die is bound to surprise Netflix subscribers who are perhaps hoping for some lighter high concept horror when they give this new movie a spin: it does rather go for the jugular, in some cases literally! It also has a final act that unwraps its very weird central mystery, while perhaps even setting up an intriguing sequel for the streaming service to dish out at a later date.
In Toby Meakins’ grim mash-up of Jumanji, Ring, Black Mirror, and Red Dwarf (more on this later!), we meet a young coder called Kayla (Iola Evans) whose life is not going particularly well. Kayla works as a cleaner at a mysterious office that a local business called Kismet is supposedly occupying, but no one seems to have really been there in a long time. Kayla’s brother recently drowned at a local pool, and her mother isn’t taking it well. She is flirting with abusing drugs courtesy of a horrible dealer at their apartment complex who is also pushing Kayla to exchange sex for money while the family is down on their luck.
Kayla’s only real friend is fellow retro tech enthusiast Isaac (Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield), who is desperate to date her. It’s through Isaac that she discovers a copy of the text-based video game CURS>R, which promises a huge cash windfall to whoever completes it. Though it seems to have been decades since the game was released, the phone line available to gamers who are curious about the big prize remains open, and Kayla is soon drawn into a disturbing world where the game makes her choose how to make others suffer, with no choice but to complete CURS>R even if it means losing the people closest to her, or her own life.
Let’s break down what happened at the end of Choose or Die…
After playing a level of CURS>R that forces Kayla to not only confront her lingering guilt over her brother’s death but physically kill him to save Isaac, Kayla and Isaac track the game’s Robert Englund-voiced prize line to a building upstate being held under the name “Ferryman Storage Inc.” It’s a notable name for the company! In Greek mythology the ferryman of Hades carried the souls of the dead from our living world to the world of the dead. In these stories, you would often pay a coin for your passage across the veil, and this neatly ties back to Choose or Die’s 80s video game themes, and the then-necessary need to insert a coin to continue playing. It’s a fun little touch.
At this stage, Kayla and Isaac are playing in “cheat mode”, having discovered a lead that might help them understand the game better and beat it with their knowledge of the creators. At the Ferryman Storage Inc. building, the duo follow some power cables to a messy room in the back. There, they play a VHS tape that shows game developer Beck (Joe Bolland) describing a beta test for CURS>R, which was created using an old curse of unknown origin. Beck has managed to wield the curse symbols as 8-bit commands in the game, which then forces the player to suffer while the person inflicting the game benefits immensely. Beck maintains that this curse can be a gift, even while his lab rat gnaws his own arm off for beta test posterity.
An active vision of Beck suddenly graces the screen, and it appears that cheating at CURS>R will lose Kayla a life. Isaac is tortured by the game before he dies in front of her. It’s time for Kayla to begin her game’s boss battle.
The Boss Battle
At the start of Choose or Die we met Hal (Eddie Marsan), a father who hid himself away drinking and playing retro games while his wife and son bickered. CURS>R first made him choose if his son lost his tongue or his wife lost her ears, and in a gruesome scene we saw what happened when he picked his son’s tongue.
Eventually, it seemed Hal had done enough to beat the game, because he was assured that his family would be safe for a while. At least until Kayla showed up for her final level boss battle against him. She arrives at his swanky pad to discover Hal at the dinner table with his family, and it looks like Hal made some brutal choices against his son and wife before the game’s curse gave him a break. In fact, he only got that break after making copies of CURS>R. Putting them out into the world meant that the curse could spread, and other players took sufferer Hal’s place as the sufferees.
From what we can tell Hal is a pretty unpleasant guy, and not only because he exerts such terrifying power over his family. He even starts a bigoted rant against Kayla, bemoaning that guys like him (white, wealthy) aren’t allowed to be the hero anymore, and that Kayla being coded as the hero isn’t fair.
Winning the Game
Remember that Red Dwarf inspiration we mentioned above? Fans of the classic British sitcom will be feeling it pretty heavily during Kayla’s boss battle against Hal, where every violent act they throw at each other is only dealt out to themselves. This was also a delightfully flipped scenario in the classic Red Dwarf episode “Justice”.
Hal’s wife takes the opportunity to try and end his reign of terror over the family by shooting Kayla, but it’s not enough, and Hal toys with Kayla by slicing his face before slitting his own throat. However, Kayla doesn’t die from the wound, and she drowns herself in Hal’s pool while her throat is bleeding, effectively drowning Hal instead. It’s game over for Hal: he’s dead, and Kayla is a “worthy” player. She has completed CURS>R.
Kismet and Beck
Kayla uses her coding knowledge and the information from Beck’s CURS>R beta test video tape to harness the curse symbols for herself. She is able to force drug dealer Lance (Ryan Gage) to kill himself with needles in the apartment complex by manipulating reality, much like a really messed up version of Neo in The Matrix. Kayla now has the power to bend reality to her will using the curse code symbols. After Lance is dispatched, Kayla justifies the killing by saying that sacrificing Lance saved her mother from his influence, and chillingly echoes Beck’s affirmation that the curse can be a gift.
As the movie ends Kayla gets a call from an older Beck, who it turns out is still a computer developer, and is now working at Kismet, the company that has until recently been employing Kayla as a cleaner. It really doesn’t seem like an accident that “kismet” means “fate”, does it? “You’ve suffered, I’ve prospered,” he tells her. “Yet somehow you managed to beat my game.”
“Who will suffer next?” Beck asks Kayla, and she responds with a pretty ice cold “Only people who deserve it.” Kayla now seemingly intends to use the curse to kill bad guys like Lance by utlilizing its retro tech and symbol command prompts to work through cell phones. Problematic, but okay! Now, Beck, about that money you promised…
Choose or Die is now streaming on Netflix.