Tuesday 31 May 2016

The Call Up

VR is The Next Big Thing in the world of videogames. We all know that, we all say that. Of course, 'we' here is shorthand for 'everybody who stands to profit from VR miraculously avoiding failure in the world of games'. Anyway, if you're going to release a movie that combines the concepts of virtual reality and videogames, 2016 is certainly the year to do it.

Written and directed by Charles Barker and out now on DVD, The Call Up can be summarised in the following way, best read in a cheesy eighties trailer voiceover voice. A group of young gamers receive an invite to test a new state-of-the-art virtual reality game, with a prize of $100,000 to be won. But things soon take a sinister turn when they realise that if you die in the game, you. Die. In. Real. Life!!! Okay, back to normal voice now. It sounds a bit crap, and unoriginal too when you consider the fact that the basic idea of dying via an alternate reality/state of consciousness has been done a thousand times before in the world of movies. Although clearly filmed with a budget that would just about get the Chuckle Brothers to attend the opening of a leisure centre, The Call Up generally speaking punches above its weight.

Each of the participants has a strong reason to be attracted by the prize money, but we don't get a series of backstories. What we get is a (very) brief summation of each character's money troubles on-screen during the opening credits. From there, we see one of the characters on his way to the offices (backed by a trendy-rather-than-cheesy eighties style synth soundtrack) and then, much sooner than you might have expected, everybody is in their silly VR outfits and the game is about to begin. “How bad can it really be?” asks one of the female players when somebody else realises refusing to play isn't an option, in a line that is oddly absent from the trailer. How bad? Very bad, of course! It would be a bloody boring film otherwise.

Now, whereas real-world VR involves very minor movement whilst wearing a headset that makes you look like a complete twat, this VR involves a full-body suit and moving around an entire building (explained by the fact that the empty building they gather in is replicated within the game). Ignoring the tech-related plot holes, which should be pretty obvious, the concept of this VR game is convincingly sold. No attempt is made to make the game look less realistic than reality; yet the aesthetics of the two worlds stand in such stark contrast to one another, and we have views of both so regularly (via characters raising their helmet visors), that – against all odds – it works.

The characters are varied, and excellently played by the young and relatively unknown cast; but they talk and act not like people but, well... like characters in a film. For example, they all start off with pistols and when the group come across a couple of M4 rifles – not nearly enough for everybody –  nobody objects or argues when the nearest players take them for themselves. Even worse, one of the two female characters basically just spends the entire film crying until she magically transforms into an ass-kicking machine. Though far from perfect it sustains interest, and consistently entertains. There's one brief sequence involving an enemy prisoner that threatens to offer a complex narrative, and thoughtful commentary on the human condition; but don't worry, that's over soon enough.

I haven't named any of the cast because it's difficult for me – or anybody outside the cast and crew –  to do so. Not only are they largely unknown, the press release identifies them by character names (which are virtually never used in the film) rather than gamertags (which is how everybody is introduced at the start of the game). You may know Parker Sawyers or Morfydd Clark, but someone like Douggie McMeekin is still in the early stages of his career. A shame because despite the film's failings, everybody involved deserves recognition for their talent.



Luke Kemp

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