06th May2016

Sci-Fi London 2016: ‘The Call Up’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Max Deacon, Morfydd Clark, Ali Cook, Parker Sawyers, Tom Benedict Knight, Boris Ler, Adriana Randall | Written and Directed by Charles Barker

the-call-up-dvd

The debut feature of writer/director Charles Barker, The Call Up comes from producers Red & Black Films, the company behind the well-regarded UK sci-fi thriller The Machine, and tells a very timely story of the “evils” of video games and virtual reality…

When a group of elite online gamers each receive a mysterious invitation to trial a state-of-the-art virtual reality video game, it’s a dream come true and impossible to resist. Arriving at the test site, the group step into hi-tech gear and prepare for a revolutionary next-level gaming experience, that brings modern warfare to life with frightening realism. At first it’s a unique and exhilarating experience. But what starts out like a dream encounter with cutting edge technology quickly takes a turn for the sinister as the group realise that death in the game equals death in real life.

There’s a very good reason this live-action video game tale is called The Call Up – besides the fact this films cast of characters are called up to play a new, untested, VR game – the action within is very much of the FPS Call of Duty variety. Yes, those of you out there that play hours and hours of COD will undiubtedly get a thrill out of seeing gamers playing a first person shooter for real. Although the idea of really dying probably won’t be as appealing!

Of course there have been killer computers and/or video games in many different media over the years (almost since the birth of video gaming itself); and the concept of “ghost in the machine” is now a well worn trope in genre cinema. It’s not like this story is even a new one, The Call Up‘s core plot, of an immersive killer game, is incredibly similar to 2006′s Stay Alive. However whilst that filmed strayed further into the fantastical with the idea of a “posessed” video game, The Call Up bases its story more in the world of VR, riding the wave of interest in the format that video gaming is currently experiencing thanks to the likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive.

Sitting somewhere between classic sci-fi thriller Cube and loud and brash action flick Gamer, The Call Up is never quite sure how far it should stray into true horror territory – there are moments, when the characters realise what is happening to them and how the cannot escape their situation, where director writer/director Charles Barker really plays on the tension and the real-world horror of realising you can die, for real, just by playing a game. At other times hoewever Barker seems to want to say something about the state of gaming, in particular bravado masking a lonely “keyboard warrior”-like existence.

Yet whilst both aspects of this film – the horror and the social commentary – do work, they never quite gel into a cohesive whole. That’s not to say that The Call Up is a bad film. Far from it. It’s a very effective small-scale thriller that, even despite a completely unsatifying ending (the “ghost in the machine” is – ultimately – less of a ghost and more of a man), is well worth seeking out when it’s released across the UK later this month.

The Call Up closes Sci-Fi London on May 6th and screens at the Derby Film Festival on May 8th. The film is in UK cinemas from 20th May and on DVD & Digital 23rd May

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