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There’s a moment in The Call Up when a small band of new players in a highly immersive gaming simulation are faced with their first mission. The objective is simple. The must shoot the enemy. Now that might not seem so complicated, especially since the players in this game are some of the top online first person shooters in the world. Shooting enemies is what they do best. But this time it’s different. They are wearing motion-capture suites and specially designed VR helmets that change the environment they are in (a sterile white warehouse) into an urban warfare setting. And the enemy they must shoot? They look exactly like real people. When those enemies get shot, they die gruesome deaths. At least in the incredibly realistic graphics the players see.
The reason I mention this is because this is a conversation I have with many fellow gamers. How real do we want our games to be? Shooting monsters and bad guys in current games is touted as real, but let’s face it, they are not. They may look great as graphic technology improves, but we are still far way from photorealism in our games. So when that day comes, how easy will it be to pull the virtual trigger on a fully realistic target in fully 3D world? It’s an interesting question, and I like how The Call Up addresses it. Some react like a gamer, and when the bullets come at them, they fire back and deal with the consequences. Others cower and hesitate. Some break down and weep. But when the simulation turns out to be not so much a simulation than an actual game of death, it’s kill or be killed.
Written and directed by Charles Barker, The Call Up is an independent film with a surprising amount of heart. And while it misses a few steps in pacing and some weak spots with direction, it is–and this is a rarity–a good gaming movie. I say that because nearly all films that try to represent gamers almost always do it wrong. Gamers are either wild stereotypes who live in basements and have never kissed a girl, or are some kind of wizard player genius who can do extraordinary things. More often than not though, filmmakers just can’t seem to ‘get’ what a gamer is. Not so with The Call Up.
Right from the opening credits, which feels like a video game start menu, this works as a gamer movie. Consider the purposefully off-putting VR drill Sergeant (Chris Obi) who trains the players, and is essentially a classic NPC (non-playable-character). From his stilted dialog, jerky movements and indestructibility, he is a wonderful creation that you come to really like, even though you think he’s a terrible actor when he first appears. It’s truly great. The VR outfits and game accessories all feel authentic as well, and even the setting is a trope in shooters.
The real surprise though is the cast. Most will seem unknown, but many have been making a name for themselves with bit parts in some larger films for a long time. Perhaps most recognizable is Morfydd Clark (Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies), who plays Shelly. She’s a terrific young actress and adds some great depth to story. In fact, nearly all do. These characters sell the horror they are facing with genuine performances. Yes, they are all broadly drawn gamer archetypes, but it’s easy to get pulled into the mystery of it all.
And that’s where the issues pop up. While there is some creativity with the premise, and the film has a great start, the last act is a little disappointing. The tired one-among-the-group-is-the-real-bad-guy cliché wears thin fast and the whole ending is actually a little too young adult’s dystopian-ish to really matter. There is no clever twist that the entirety of the film wants us to believe is coming. Just a predictable finale that feels unearned.
Still, The Call Up is a genuinely good film that compels for most of its fast-paced 90 minutes. Some very good visual effects, a sharp script, and solid performances will impress. Gamer or not, there’s a lot here that makes this one you should play, er, watch.
Director: Charles Barker
Writer: Charles Barker
Stars: Morfydd Clark, Chris Obi, Parker Sawyers, Tom Benedict Knight, Max Deacon, Adriana Randall, Ali Cook