Whether we know it at the time or not, life-changing moments can be very traumatic, sometimes for both ourselves and those around us who have become used to a familiar path. Many emotions can bubble to the surface, true selves can come to light, and the strain of veering off course often produces odd effects and erratic behavior – like the sort that might lead one to, oh I don’t know, get a little too gooey and intimate with a freaky arcade machine. These can be confusing times, and writer-director Graham Skipper doesn’t make things much clearer with his riff on 80s Cronenbergian ickiness, Sequence Break, a film that does a good job with both computer-chip body horror and nerd romance, but can’t quite find a coherent way to bring the two together through all the trippiness.
Things start out fairly straightforward, with a young man named Oz living the dream as a whiz repairman for old video game cabinets. He lovingly restores these old machines, replacing parts, and in some cases, rebuilding from scratch; or as he puts it, “bringing the dead back to life.” Through the kind of happenstance that pretty much only happens in the movies, he meets Tess, a young woman who appreciates his passion, but more importantly, likes and understands him as a person. Standing in the way of their relationship is a mysterious video game that eerily keeps drawing Oz in, inducing creepy hallucinations and toying with his physical being as it gives him a glimpse into a dark other realm. Throw in a shadowy stranger, whose ravings suggest a dramatic connection to this software, and Oz is destined for choices that deep down must resolve what sort life he wants.
Sequence Break does well in this setup, and Chase Williamson (John Dies at the End) finds an impressively natural balance for Oz between geek stereotype and believable human being. By the time Fabianne Therese (also John Dies at the End) has entered the picture, we already have a good sense of the comfort zone his life exists in, and know that any disruption will have consequences. Still, even with looming weirdness in the background, the cute courtship utterly charms its way to the forefront, played out with refreshingly low-key dialogue that smacks of reality, and a wonderful chemistry between the two actors that would have made any additional excursions into rom-com territory almost welcome.
However, that is simply not to be. Taking its cues from 80s horror classics – especially the films of David Cronenberg – Sequence Break also explores the relationship between man and machine, as Oz still clings to his pixelated security blanket. Apparently he loves gaming so much so that his late-night sessions with the possibly jealous Christine-like arcade game turn into sticky affairs that simulate a sexual encounter of sorts, one that stops just shy of the actual exchanging of bodily fluids (though plenty of drippiness gets the message across). The imagery doesn’t quite have the same pit-of-the-stomach cringe-worthiness of something like Videodrome or The Fly, but it’s still likely to produce at least an uncomfortable giggle. The use of practical effects during these sequences is top-notch, both an eye-pleasing contribution to the overall vibe and a nice tribute to a fading craft, and flashes of bizarre visuals add to the dark sci-fi tone.
Eventually these two worlds must converge, however, and this is where Sequence Break stumbles a bit. Oz’s love for the gaming medium is well-established, but he never quite comes across as quite obsessed enough for him to be afraid of change. In fact, he seems to take life fairly well in stride, and his passion seems on the healthy side. Without a clear internal conflict, it comes down to the influence of outside forces, but the intentions of the machine are never quite clear – does it specifically want Oz for itself, or would it consume both of them if given the chance? The weirdo stranger doesn’t help matters, instead confusing things further with cryptic rantings and general lunacy that could be cut out altogether without lessening one’s understanding. The film also makes a point of defining its own title, suggesting a strong correlation to the story, yet even as a gamer who already knew what the term meant, still the metaphor seems weak and vague. Depicting events that are open to interpretation is a fine thing, but a stronger foundation from which to build theories might have given Sequence Break a little more bite.
Regardless of the story’s ambiguity, taken as a charming romance set amidst blood and black goo (no, not that romance), Sequence Break has plenty to like. Williams and Theresa portray a pleasant romantic couple, and some gleefully gory special effects will surely satisfy genre devotees. Fans of 80s horror and video games should check it out. You may never look at the joystick for Space Invaders the same way again.
FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL • JULY 13 – AUGUST 2, 2017