The Call Up review

Unsuspecting gamers play a deadly multiplayer shooter in the Brit sci-fi offering, The Call Up. Ryan takes a look...

Philip K Dick once wrote that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, refuses to go away. In The Call Up, a bunch of online shooter fanatics get caught in a virtual reality game that, even when they no longer want to play it, won’t be turned off.

This is the first feature from writer-director Charles Barker, and, just in time for VR technology’s (apparent) second wind, The Call Up wades into the topic of gaming and the warping of reality. That is: what happens when a videogame becomes a little too realistic for comfort?

Set in an apparently deserted office block in New York, The Call Up sees a disparate group of strangers take part in a competition with an enticing star prize ($100,000) but rather fuzzily defined rules. It’s only once the doors have locked on an eerily white, lab-like room that the game gradually reveals itself. Each member of the group is clad in an embarrassingly tight lycra get-up akin to a mo-cap suit, before being cajoled into wearing a white plastic jacket and matching helmet by an alarmingly robotic voice over a public address system.

The jacket and helmet, we soon learn, is part of a state-of-the-art form of virtual reality hardware which turns the empty office block into a multi-storey battle zone. When viewed through the filter of the VR helmet, the white walls become the filthy grey, bombed-out confines of a Gears Of War or Call Of Duty-type shooter. The difference here is that firing a pistol or a machine gun feels completely real – so real that even the elite gamers among the group are thrown through a loop, and it takes ex-soldier (Parker Sawyer) to provide a bit of on-the-spot weapons training to the rest of the ensemble cast, which also includes Max Deacon (Into The Storm), Morfydd Clark (The Falling) and Ali Cook (The Anomaly).

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It’s when the first wave of goons come dashing through a gun-metal door that the group realises the game’s stakes: getting shot not only hurts, but is potentially fatal. Those white suits are armed with a device that administers a deadly shock to a player when they’re iced inside the game. Sure, there are medi-packs and bullet-proof vests, but once those are gone, that’s it – it’s a one-hit-kill situation. Armed with this news, the group is given an ultimatum: get from the building’s 25th floor to ground level or die violently in the attempt.

The Call Up is an unexpected return to a wave of half-forgotten thrillers from the 1990s, from The Lawnmower Man to the ultra low-budget, direct-to-video offering, Arcade. All of those films showed people tangling with VR and suffering horribly for their troubles; few of them satisfyingly explored the Phildickean, mind-warping implications of this new technology. If VR was indistinguishable or more intoxicating than reality, what then? The notable exception was David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which explored both the seductive and disquieting sides of an all-encompassing game.

At first, it looks as though The Call Up might follow eXistenZ’s lead. While its production values are visibly low on occasion, and the acting seldom rises above the passable, Charles Barker effectively sets up the rules of his game; the sense of panic as the group realises that they’re in the midst of a deadly shooter with no pause button and no hack for infinite energy. But then the story switches gear, and reveals itself as a disappointingly familiar slasher film with added guns and ammo. The central characters rapidly fall into bland personality types who die in a sequence that is all too easy to predict.

There are still some interesting ideas dotted around here and there – particularly a moral dilemma involving a password and a hostage – but Barker seems to have little time or interest in exploring them further. Even the notion of seeing two worlds simultaneously is toyed with but never quite followed to any kind of conclusion. Having a game continue to run even when you’ve lifted the visor on your helmet – so you can hear and feel your enemy, but can’t see them – is a plot point that could have been explored for far more suspense than we actually get.

Even if the current wave of VR doesn’t take off as its manufacturers hope, then there’ll almost certainly come a time when games take on an enveloping level of realism. Science fiction is the kind of genre that was invented to play with the philosophical implications of this kind of future tech. The Call Up builds up an interesting scenario, but sadly fritters it away on the cinematic equivalent of an on-rails shooter.

The Call Up is out in UK cinemas on the 20th May.

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2 out of 5