Friday, June 19, 2009

Games On Film: Silent Hill (2006)

Like a bewildered protagonist from one of the Silent Hill games, I routinely find myself staggering through fog, hoping to somehow relive the past in present form. It's been three years since the Silent Hill movie first hit cinemas, and despite much blustering about a potential sequel, such a film has failed to materialize. (Not even in creepy devil-clone form!)

Recent discussions on the blog have meandered toward the comparisons between video games and film.
Silent Hill in particular draws inevitable comparison with it's heavily derived film references, both thematically, and in presentation. Tekken will be the slightly less obvious franchise to make the jump next with a release date of August, but first, a little history...

With a wide array of critical pannings, and an uninspiring take at the box office, it's a fairly unremarkable situation for a film like this to find itself in.
The film's 2002 survival horror predecessor, Resident Evil, found similar fortunes, but was reanimated by a strong audience discovered after-the-fact on DVD. The two sequels that followed performed moderately stronger than the first, but were also financially unspectacular.

1993 saw the first major debut of a gaming property on big screen with the lacklustre release of Super Mario Bros.The film failed to capitalize on the runaway success of the console franchise, setting a grim tone for the future of other series that would attempt the same. In 1994, Double Dragon and Street Fighter fared no better than their platforming compadres, but the '95 release of Mortal Kombat turned a corner to give fans and producers a glimmer of hope. According to Box Office Mojo; the current highest grossing video game films are: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Pokemon: The First Movie (1999), and Mortal Kombat (1995). #1, Tomb Raider, attracted $50m on it's opening weekend, a number tripled by record setting genre rivals, The Dark Knight (2008) and Spider-man 3 (2007).

Cut any way you like -- the numbers associated with video game films, unfortunately, support the popular misconception that they are all doomed to failure. This overwhelming evidence does not, however, refute the fact that it's absolutely ridiculous to summarily condemn gaming films with the assumption that interactive quotas render the two mediums incompatible.

Silent Hill, for all it's faults, makes a fairly bold attempt at justifying the prospect of games on film.
I would personally be inclined to compare it to Iron Man; the contrastingly successful Marvel comics blockbuster of 2008. Iron Man garnered unanticipated success in both the critical and financial landscapes, despite being a fairly run-of-the-mill superhero action film.
The great success Iron Man produced was a greater acceptance and understanding of the visual flair and spirit behind these franchise adaptations. Iron Man was as colourful and impractical as his comic book counterpart, lovingly realised with many of the same suspensions of disbelief that have made the character an icon for decades.

French director, Christophe Gans, made a similar gesture with his ill-fated Silent Hill film.
The story lacked the inherent charm of lumbering video game FMVs, instead serving up much more familiar versions of boredom with it's conventional opening scenes. A spine throughout the film draws viewers out of the secluded town regularly for similarly mediocre deviations into the life of a desperate supporting character -- something potentially paid-off in a sequel, but unappreciated in the one-off experience. Then there's the end, which just plain falls apart, stripping away at the alluring mystery of the film to borrow the most cockamamie elements of the game.

As much as these mediocrities intrude upon the overall image of the movie, they should not blind any viewer to the truffled morsels of unrivalled deliciousness that lie within the film. Sure, you've got your fanboy pops like the sewer zombie horde in Resident Evil, the martial arts and ice blasts of Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat, and Angelina Jolie's, well, boobs, in Tomb Raider, but I'm not sure any of those can measure up to the rusted macabre of Silent Hill. Radha Mitchell puts in a strong turn as the patchworked heroine, but everybody knows the real hero of the movie is Pyramid Head!

From his disinterested slow march into the movie, to his mysterious retreat amidst one of the tense highpoints of action, the Pyramid Headed one is not the embodiment of sexual frustration, but rather everything glorious (and gory) about the Silent Hill film!

Though the visual design and faithful recreation of gaming iconography pose a striking argument for the film, it's the unnoticed, the time given to the non-space, that is quite possibly the thing that sets it above Resident Evil, and champions the influence of Christophe Gans.

It's hard to imagine an American director having the confidence and delicacy to approach the film with some of it's classic gaming references. While a complete lack of dialogue immerses gamers into their atmospheric experience, it's traditionally perceived as risky to leave that much dead air in a theatre. Gans not only boldly commands a character exclusively through her actions (and reactions), but also directs a film that relishes in it's lack of explanations, at least until the total breakdown of the third-act.

With an ending that left the door open for Sean Bean to return as a retro-fitted James Sunderland, a sequel promised to capitalize on the conceptual dialogue introduced in the film, allowing the movie to have faith in an audience's capacity to accept and understand the terraforming landscapes, Japanese infused horror, and thriller intensity.

The onus for failure or success is ultimately on the creative forces who often fail to steer close enough to the source material, failing in ways comparable films (like Iron Man) haven't. Taken in isolation, much of the second-act of Silent Hill proves exactly why video games are just as viable as any other film adaptation, be they comic book, novel, or amusement ride (ie; Pirates of the Caribbean). All these mediums share the same building blocks of character and concept, and consequently, with the right creative vision, are interchangeable.

Any fan with an inclination toward the ideas of Silent Hill owes it to themselves to see the film, if they haven't. If they have, they should consider taking another look, with special care to note the possibilities brimming within the very best moments of the film. When it's good, it's truly exceptional!

A spoiler-laden trailer does little to convey Silent Hill at it's unconventional and atmospheric best.

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