Thursday, April 27, 2006
Silent Hill , based on the popular Konami game that debuted in the late 1990s, arrives after Doom and two Resident Evils (also video game-inspired) tried to stir heat at the box office. The film version of Silent Hill focuses on a young girl named Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) who sleep walks and is troubled by terrifying visions. She screams out the words 'silent hill' during some of her episodes. This prompts her mother Rose (Radha Mitchell) to Google the words on the Internet, which leads to the discovery of a ghost town called Silent Hill. Ignoring her husband's protests, Rose flees with her daughter to seek out the town and hopefully some answers. But Rose ends up crashing her car at the entrance to Silent Hill, and when she comes to, her daughter is missing. As Rose searches for Sharon, she begins to uncover the town's perverse history, and its dark, terrifying secret.
The town was abandoned years ago when an underground mine caught fire. The fires still burn which enshrouds the town in an eerie, ashen fog. But more terrifying than the suffocating grey haze, is a terrible living Darkness that comes at regular intervals and transforms everything that falls under its heavy shadow. But these threatening physical manifestations are only a reflection of the evil done by the inhabitants of this small town to a little girl 30 years ago'a little girl who just happens to look like Sharon.
The people behind the film of Silent Hill are talented enough to have brought the video game to life. Director Christophe Gans previously made the stylish Brotherhood of the Wolf ; production designer Carol Spier has consistently done brilliant, inspired work for David Cronenberg; and Patrick Tatopoulos has created some of the best creature effects in Hollywood. And you could say that they all do their jobs well here, making the film look great. Yet the film goes horribly wrong in the script department. Roger Avary (who began his career working with Quentin Tarantino but failed to score any successes on his own) pens a script that fails to create compelling characters, credible dialogue or an involving storyline. Now a mother in search of her missing child should be inherently compelling but Avary can't even make something as primal as that ring true. He's not helped by Radha Mitchell's blank performance but then maybe she just couldn't find any inspiration in lines like 'It's okay baby' as the little girl is about to be torched at the stake.
To be fair, Gans must shoulder some responsibility for the film's shortcomings. Gans, as with the filmmakers who brought Doom and the Resident Evils to the screen, falls into the trap of trying to imitate what the video games look like. This means that we the audience spend half the movie following behind the characters as they walk through different locations. This visually imitates what the video games are often like but it becomes quite boring in a movie. In a video game, you are actively involved in the character's exploration and can either find things you need to collect to survive or become involved in confrontations where your skills will come into play. At a movie, everyone is a passive observer. So when we follow Rose through one hallway/corridor/passageway after another, we can do nothing as we wait for the inevitable thing to leap out from the dark to try and scare us. Filmmakers have to start thinking of a new way to bring video games to the screen; they must reinvent it for film not merely mimic the look of the games. Gamers aren't enamored with how a game looks but rather how it plays, how it involves them. When a film of a vid-game finds a way to similarly involve its audiences, then it will have found the formula for success. So far that hasn't happened.
Gans also fails to find the reality of the situation. In order for horror to work, we have to believe the world that is being laid before us no matter how fantastical. Gans too often treats scenes like set pieces at a horror amusement park that Rose simply walks through. Take a scene where she must go through a horde of potentially lethal zombie nurses. The nurses may be in various states of decay but they are without exception big-breasted women in tight, short uniforms that look more like escapees from Michael Jackson's Thriller video than creatures meant to do anyone harm. So we feel like Rose has accidentally stumbled onto some music video set and must sneak through this crowd of extras without the crew noticing.
Very quickly our interest in the story wanes but we do start looking forward to what visual creations will be lurking around the next dark corner. Gans, working with a top-notch effects crew, provides a visual feast of violence, perversity and gore for horror fans. The art direction, creature make up, and CGI work here is impressive. We admire it all the more because we're not interested in the film's story. Not since Clive Barker's Hellraiser have we seen flesh twisted and contorted into creatures of such perversity. But whereas Barker's creations emerge from a fully thought out and thought through horror vision, the Silent Hill creatures just pop up for a quick scare and leave. Although I have never played the video game, what I can gather from my sources (okay, that would be my twelve-year-old son) is that the monsters should in some way reflect the fears of the characters and be manifestations of their own private nightmares. In other words it was scarier.
But Avary's script only concerns itself with moving Rose from point A to point B, and not with placing her in a real world of horror. He fails to create monsters that work organically in the story, and he's not even able to stir interest with the town's back-story. I mean the idea that there's a town where fires have been burning beneath the ground for decades is interesting (especially when you find out that Avary came across the real town of Centralia, Pennsylvania where a mine fire has actually been burning beneath the now near vacant city for years). Avary makes the plot for Silent Hill complicated (meaning he's constantly having to explain things) but not complex (meaning there are no rich ideas to tantalize your imagination).
Silent Hill (rated R for strong horror violence and gore, disturbing images, and some language) proves yet again that while Hollywood wants to tap into the popularity of the video gaming world, it still hasn't found a way to bring the games to cinematic life. Christophe Gans finds an appropriately effective visual style but can't locate a decent storyline or credible dialogue in Roger Avary's script.
Companion viewing: Hellraiser, Brotherhood of the Wolf, eXistenZ