Thursday 12 May 2016

The Call Up (UK 2016: Dir Charles Barker)

Maybe it's me, but by the time I saw The Call Up on the final day of the Fantastiq Film Festival in Derby, I was in the mood for a film that wasn't particularly tricksy or overambitious, and had enough visual flair to hold my interest. And Charles Barker's debut feature delivered. Almost.

The films of Paul W.S. Anderson are guilty pleasures of mine, and it was that director's ability to make a film look far richer than its budget that came to mind while watching this story of a group of advanced gamers trapped in a VR nightmare within the confines of a commercial tower block. A bunch of young people (and one slightly older guy - uh oh!) are summoned to an anonymous downtown office having all previously proved themselves versatile gamers. They're invited to try out a state-of-the-art immersive experience, putting them at the heart of some shoot 'em up action, with the aim of working their way down the building without being 'shot'. The twist here is that when wounded in the VR world, they suffer in the real one too - shot twice and they're a goner in real life, which the group discover as they realise that their VR suits, once donned, can't be removed.

Much of the movie is concerned with building up tension as the disparate group discover the (virtual) reality of the situation and try to survive. There's little plot but it doesn't really matter as the movie never sets itself up to be sophisticated or involving in a narrative way - in fact the twist at the end jars in its detail and casts a bit of a pall over what we've seen before. Content wise the obvious comparison here is a scaled down version of The Raid movies of Gareth Evans but without the chop socky.

The Anderson reference is particularly pertinent in the cash restricted claustrophobia of the action (you know each floor of the office block is actually the same set slightly redressed but it doesn't put you off), the shiny hardware on display and the utterly two dimensional cast. Yet The Call Up is never less than watchable: the switching between created VR world and reality, glimpsed as the gamers occasionally take off their helmets, is both effective and disorientating, and there's little let up on the gun play once those helmets are in place.

This is also pleasingly retro stuff. VR is a subject pretty much untouched by filmmakers since CGI turned the fantasy into reality, but the director proves there's still some dramatic mileage in it. The shiny suits and masks recall the stormtroopers of the Star Wars films, and the very 1980s synth score by Tom Raybould complements the look of the thing really well.

The Call Up is by no means a masterpiece - at the screening I attended the audience was decidedly mixed in its response - but it's an assured debut from Charles Barker and one which, until the rather unconvincing final scenes, is happy to deliver its thrills without complexity but with some finesse.

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