In recent years the pastime of watching other people playing video games has exploded. Personally, I don’t see it as being any different to watching a game of football or laughing at the kids crammed into your local Games-Workshop. The idea of the spectator is something that’s fascinated me for some time and it’s explored in quite a few films. Darren Brown even did a special on the effects of mob mentality; one of his best, in my opinion.
Level Up is another look at the spectator and his role in the game. Matt (Josh Bowman) is an out of work something or other, slobbing all day on his girlfriend’s (Anna) sofa, playing video games and coming up with the next big app. One morning, after Anna (Leila Mimmack) has left for work, Matt is set upon by a group of men wearing grandma’s home knitted balaclavas. They strap a suicide bomber-esque vest to his chest and tell him to deliver the ‘package’ to some guy in a shopping centre. The kicker is, if he doesn’t follow their every instruction, they’ll kill Anna. If he tries to contact anyone or does anything to draw attention to the situation, they’ll kill Anna. Before long, Matt finds himself being attacked by random people who seem to want to get the package themselves.

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As the story progressed, it became obvious to me that Matt was involved in some sort of game. If the package was so valuable that people would be fighting over it on the streets, then surely it’s worth something. And if it’s worth something, why strap it to some random dude? At first, I thought these might have been plot holes, but everything I might have identified as poor scripting turned out to be intentional, which was a nice surprise. I will say, however, that it felt an awful lot like faffing around for the first half of the film. Go here, do that. Matt doesn’t do it. They threaten to kill Anna and tell him to go somewhere else and do something else. Matt, again, fails to do the thing, and they still don’t make good on their promise. The script could have certainly done with a tighter focus for the first half, forcing Matt to achieve the demands set upon him rather than allowing him to continuously get away with not doing what he was told.

Fans of films like Gamer (2009) or Death Race (2008) will enjoy Level Up. It’s very obviously inspired by video games, but not directly related to them. One particular video game is referenced throughout the film and there’s a short first-person POV sequence that I enjoyed thoroughly. The film is a not-so-subtle nod to gaming and the culture of spectators and their role within the game. It’s later revealed that the situations Matt finds himself in are controlled by a horde of online viewers, all of them chatting and laughing at the horrible things he’s having to do.
All the while I was watching I kept thinking back to that Derren Brown special where his audience, all wearing masks, continuously vote on worse and worse things to happen to a complete stranger. Average people, normally good people, voting to trash some poor guy’s house and eventually having him abducted. Honestly, my enjoyment of Level Up came large part in light of knowing how crowd mentality works. It turned an otherwise action-packed romp across London into quite a dark study on anonymity and the depths to which man will quickly descend when he can’t be judged for his actions.

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Sadly, the film is let down by a few things script, character, and actor related. Josh Bowman (who in a certain light reminded me of Ryan Reynolds) didn’t hit the emotional side of Matt’s character as well as he did the desperate side. It sounds harsh, but he was at his best when he wasn’t talking. The confliction and horror of the character really came across through Bowman’s face, but not in his voice. I feel a lot of the problem lies in the less than inspired dialogue rather than the acting, but honestly, I would have enjoyed his performance more if he hadn’t spoken at all.

All in all, Level Up is an intriguing, fast-paced, action thriller with an above-average plot and a pretty good execution. The acting wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible either. The idea’s certainly been done, but what hasn’t? Level Up tries to ground the notion of a forced death game, moving it away from the realms of sci-fi and placing into the contemporary arena. It does many things well, but plenty of things poorly, too. A thoroughly average film in the end.

3 / 5

Dir: Adam Randall

Scr: Adam Randall, Gary Young

Cast: Josh Bowman, William Houston, Leila Mimmack, Christina Wolfe, Leon Annor, Camermon Jack, Neil Maskell.

Prd: Heather Greenwood, Andrew Orr, Danny Potts

DOP: Eben Bolter

Music: Plaid

Country: UK

Year: 2016

Run time: 84 mins

Level Up is available on Blu-ray and DVD from the 19th of September