Ithaca Fantastik Review: SEQUENCE BREAK Goes Cronenberg On Arcade Games

Graham Skipper’s directorial debut wanders beautifully, but aimlessly.

Quentin Tarantino once said that if he wanted to make a movie with CGI-assisted fight scenes, he’d “stick [his] dick in a Nintendo.” At the time, it was a funny line in defense of practical filmmaking techniques (referring to the Matrix sequels, specifically). Tarantino probably didn’t guess that someone would eventually make a movie about that very concept. Well, it’s here, and it’s called Sequence Break

Solitary video game enthusiast Oz (Chase Williamson, John Dies At The End) has pipe dreams of designing video games, but spends his days (and some nights) working at a local arcade repair shop. The arcade is on the verge of shutdown when it receives two unexpected visitors: a mysterious, previously unheardof arcade game board seemingly possessed of psychosexual powers; and Tess (Fabianne Therese, Starry Eyes), a video game nerd who takes an instant liking to Oz. The combination of first romance and mind-altering gameplay sends Oz spiraling into a body horror nightmare, as Jess and the increasingly addictive game play tug-of-war with Oz’s attention - and his junk. And who’s that weird hairy guy who keeps spouting cryptic instructions?

Indie horror mainstay Graham Skipper makes his directorial debut with Sequence Break, following performances in films like The Mind’s Eye, Beyond the Gates, and Almost Human. If you’ve seen any of those, you’ll have a solid idea of Sequence Break’s inspirations. Skipper’s love of Cronenberg is every bit as evident as his colleague Joe Begos’, but where Begos’ body horror riffs skew organic, Skipper goes technological. Videodrome is a clear reference point, as Oz gets intimate and gooey with his mysterious arcade machine, while the machine’s unnervingly fleshy silicone joysticks and buttons evoke eXistenZ’s erotic game pods. It’s all done practically, through a multitude of squicky gags that really make the most (and likely took up a large share) of the film’s low budget.

Those versed in gamer culture will almost certainly notice the parallels between Sequence Break and the urban legend of Polybius, a fictitious arcade machine allegedly developed by the government to induce psychoactive effects in its players. Skipper seems intent not just to tell a story around that concept, but to turn his film into it: much of the movie consists of Oz staring into hypnotic vector graphics or otherwise drifting into dreamy hallucinations, all lit in primary colours and soundtracked by synths and noise. This stuff is well-done, blurring the lines between brain cells and circuitry, but often lacks for dynamics - sometimes you just want something to latch onto amidst the haze.

Where Sequence Break gets really interesting - but quickly falls short - is in its use of the video-game concept in its title. As Oz learns (and dutifully informs the audience) via a Google search he surely wouldn’t need to make, sequence breaking involves accessing parts of games out of order, often causing strange things to happen as the code’s instructions get confused. Transplant that idea into a movie, and you get a pretty dang cool pseudo-time-travel hook. 

But Sequence Break gets to that idea too late in its runtime. There’s a vague thematic notion that Oz has to break out of his routine in order to achieve his dreams, which fits with the sequence-break idea quite nicely, but that comes at the tail end of seventy-odd minutes of unfocused genre imagery. Sequence-breaking could have facilitated some intriguing storytelling and even more intriguing character development, but here the concept has to fight for prominence with a more generalised miasma of unreality - and a romance that doesn’t quite fit.

While Williamson and Therese are fine actors who do fine work here, their casting in Sequence Break just isn’t quite right. Williamson’s vaguely on-the-spectrum approach to Oz is successful for what it is, but he’s simply too energetic as an actor to really embody the “antique” arcade-obsessed shut-in the script constantly refers to him as. Likewise, Therese’s chipper geek Tess comes across like a wish-fulfillment fantasy for, well, arcade-obsessed shut-ins. Both are all affect, playing their roles more like people in video game commercials than actual gamers. The script’s overly demonstrative dialogue doesn’t help, either. I didn’t buy that these characters knew what they were talking about, and I didn’t buy their chemistry together. One wonders what the film would be like had Skipper played Oz himself.

Sequence Break is a first feature, and it definitely feels like it. Many scenes are shot purely for coverage, with occasionally awkward blocking and/or editing; the script could have used another edit to cull some clunky exposition and unnecessary small talk. Both narratively and thematically, an atmosphere of confusion hangs over the entire film. While that's intentional to an extent, the film ends up as a collection of good ideas, all wandering around but never quite connecting or resolving into something greater.

There’s a sense, watching Sequence Break - supported in the text, even! - that Skipper really seized the day in making this film. It’s certainly an enthusiastic offering, full of the kind of weirdo imagery that’s fun as fuck to shoot. With greater confidence, clearer focus, and sharper pacing, his next film should be a real treat.