The Call Up: movie review

 photo THE CALL UP - POSTER_zpsyj2tee6u.jpg

  • Screener link provided by PR.
  • In UK cinemas from 20th May, available digitally and on DVD 23rd May

Let’s face it; whenever cinema attempts to adapt videogames, or even approaches the concept of videogames, the results are almost exclusively awful. And when we’re talking specifically about VR, sheesh… did you see The Lawnmower Man? If you did, you have our condolences. Expectations set appropriately low here.

The Call Up’s premise is simple and not entirely unfamiliar. A group of young elite gamers are invited to beta test a super-high-tech VR game. It quickly becomes apparent (as you would expect) that All Is Not As It Seems and, as you also might expect, if you die in the game then – dramatic pause – you die in real life. Simply taking the headset off and walking away is of course not an option, forcing the participants to see the game through to its conclusion. This paper-thin setup is stretched across a limited budget by an unknown director, with the aid of a small and largely unknown cast. All the more impressive, then, that it’s turned out much better than anybody might reasonably expect.

This movie possibly sets some sort of record in terms of how quickly it lights the fuse of its central idea. The opening credits play against a background of some sort of computer display, showing brief details of the people to be invited to play the game and why they might want the prize money on offer for the top score. We follow one of the players on his way to the offices where the game is to be played, and it’s then mere minutes before everybody is wearing their slightly ridiculous VR kit.

Indeed, one of the problems with VR in real life is that people using the kit look absolutely ridiculous to anybody watching. Design of the kit here was extremely important, especially as they’ve gone for a full-body outfit. There’s one brief sequence where we see the players taking themselves extremely seriously mid-game in ‘the real world’, and they do look extremely silly; but the suits themselves are very well designed, halfway between X-Men movie suits (little surprise, as they share a costume designer) and a less-ridiculous Tron outfit. The helmets look nothing like real VR headsets which, let’s face it, is very much a good thing.

The unrealistically bearable VR kits.

The biggest hurdle when working with an indie movie budget here is convincing the viewer that they’re watching real people within a virtual world. The solution that writer/director Charles Barker has come up with is deceptively simple and very, very effective. Although there are a handful of CG effects sprinkled throughout the movie, a line is drawn between the real and virtual worlds by finding excuses for one or more of the players to lift their visors on a fairly regular basis. The VR world looks just as real and solid as the genuine one. However, the stark visual contrast between the two – the ‘real’ world an empty, bright, and sterile office building with blue & white VR suits, the virtual world dark and claustrophobic with regular clothes – really hammers home the difference.

It must be stressed that the cast, mostly young and almost completely unknown as they are, put in excellent performances across the board. From Parker Sawyers as the selfless one with real-world combat experience to Morfydd Clark as the initially unremarkable one who comes to the fore, all involved deserve to go on to great things. Special mention must go to one of the least experienced and lowest profile actors, however – Douggie McMeekin. McMeekin plays the only character that could be tagged as a stereotypical gaming nerd type, yet comes across as a person rather than a cookie-cutter gap filler.

There’s piles of talent both in front of and behind the camera, which means that at no point does this become a bad film. The truth is though, unfortunately, that the movie never truly realises its potential. One of the main issues is that the mystery of exactly who set up this deadly game – and why – is barely touched upon for the bulk of the running time, with things only investigated (read: instantly revealed) literally within the final ten minutes. The ending, while fitting all that has come before, feels a little anticlimactic.

The virtual world. Look at those graphics!

Generally speaking the film is the game and the game is the film, so the story it’s able to tell is instantly limited. It’s mostly played straight (making the quality of the writing and acting all the more impressive), meaning that the script it leans on needs to be meaty, twisting, and highly intelligent – which, with brief exceptions, it is not. As a directorial debut with a restrictive budget, it excels in several important areas. The one thing it needed more of was ambition.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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