It’s invitation only with a top prize of $100,000, and those who receive the notification are top of the league gamers, their names familiar from the head of the leader boards, STR8 SHOOT3R, DA-CHI3F, REAP3R_2000, SOXXX_1, xxATLASxx, MUSTANG67, SLAY3R GRL and T3RRORIST#1, brought together to an ultra-modern city centre tower block and told to report to the twenty fifth floor.
Taken out from behind the anonymity of their online personas, they’re not quite sure what is expected of them, and in particular Zahid (Boris Ler) is visibly shaken to be presented with armour labelled T3RRORIST#1, a handle he chose ironically as a but which has connotations all too present for the young Bosnian refugee now living in London.
With his eye on the prize and determined to live up to his xxATLASxx label, Marco (Dracula Untold’s Tom Benedict Knight) has no time for Zahid’s reservations, berating him for his reticence, but when he tries to leave rather than capitulate Zahid finds the doors are locked. Persuaded to participate, they don their bodysuits and gleaming white armour and are scanned in preparation for the next stage, the beta testing of a fully immersive virtual reality wargame.
Openly mocking Adam (Douggie McMeekin), the less than impressive physical reality of REAP3R_2000, Marco’s attempted dominance of the situation is thwarted by Andre (Monsters: Dark Continent’s Parker Sawyers), living up to his name of STR8 SHOOT3R as the only one present with actual military experience.
Briefed by their non-player character sergeant (Snow White and the Huntsman’s Christopher Obi, soon to be seen as Anubis in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) that all they have to do is make it to the ground floor, the instruction is deceptively simple. Sealed into their armour, it soon becomes apparent that cooperation is not optional, their suits able to inflict physical sensations and electric shocks ranging from motivational to lethal. The prize is no longer monetary: it is survival.
From a purely technical point of view, the debut feature from writer/director Charles Barker is impressive, not only the sculpted body armour but particularly the seamless switching between the real and the virtual, the darkened concrete of the bombed out building replaced by the pristine walls of the office block as faceplates are swung up, approaching enemies suddenly revealed as they are swung back down.
While it initially could be seen almost as a satire on the way gamers relate to each other, factionalising and marginalising, the men blinded by their bravado and convinced of their superiority while the two women, MUSTANG67 and SLAY3R GRL, actually Shelly and Taylor (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Morfydd Clark and Adriana Randall) are initially timid and unprepared, but this is not developed, and in the wake of Gamergate it’s regrettable it doesn’t do any favours for the entrenched attitude that games are strictly for the boys.
There are aspects of The X-Files’ William Gibson penned First Person Shooter and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube – is this a test or an experiment? – and intentionally lethal sports have been used previously in satirical attacks observing how close modern society is to dystopia, most obviously in Rollerball and The Running Man, but despite a surfeit of obvious targets The Call Up’s ammunition is as sparse as that of the competitors.
With the ensemble completed by Max Deacon of Into the Storm and Ali Cook of The Anomaly and The Messenger, all the cast are good in what they have been given but are given little chance to become interesting let alone likeable, and with the limitations of the setting, each level a variation of the one before, it is the characters and the story which must take centre stage and there is insufficient of either.
Perhaps aimed more at the linear objective-based mindset of gamers rather than a general cinema audience, but it becomes entertainingly explosive towards the finale and despite only tantalising glimpses of the wider world of the game The Call Up is certainly more comprehensible and accessible than many direct adaptations of videogames optimistically touted as feature films, and for a debut effort is is an undeniably impressive calling card for Barker.
The Call Up is in UK cinemas from Friday 20th May and on DVD and digital from Monday 23rd May