Silent Hill (2006)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 4/21/06
Producer: Samuel Hadida
Director: Christophe Gans
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Jodelle Ferland, Laurie Holden, Deborah Unger, Sean Bean

Here's a novel idea: Let's make a film version of a video game and actually base it on material that's in the game. Seems painfully obvious, doesn't it? And yet, it's the one thing that almost every video game adaptation fails to do. If there were ever a video game that deserved to be made into a film, it would be either "Resident Evil" (2002) or "Tomb Raider" (2001). While both films were marginally entertaining in their own right, they both failed miserably to capture the look, feel, essence, and scope of the material they were supposedly based on. Hell, "Resident Evil" didn't even feature any characters from the video game. They exist completely outside of the video game realm, with just enough nods and winks to acknowledge the existing fan base. Then you have an abomination like "Street Fighter" (1994) that disregards everything about the source material and goes out of its way to offend the only people who would be interested in the film in the first place. Which brings us to "Silent Hill", which for better or worse, is an almost literal translation that only fans of the game can appreciate. Director Christophe Gans ("Crying Freeman" (1995), "Brotherhood Of The Wolf" (2001) ) is clearly a fan of the series and brings to the film something that's lacking in most other video game adaptations - understanding and respect. In "Silent Hill", the game elements are the stars of the show instead of being relegated to cheap gimmicks that are occasionally thrown in to placate fans.

To summarize the film, "Silent Hill" is about Rose and Chris Da Silva (Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean) and their young adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). Sharon is plagued with schizophrenic nightmares that refer to the mysterious town of Silent Hill in West Virginia, which causes the distraught Rose to pay a visit to the ruins of the town in a desperate attempt to find answers. Once there, Rose, Sharon, and police officer Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden) are drawn into a supernatural hell of darkness and evil, reflecting the tragic history of the quaint little town. Only the strength and love of a mother protecting her child can save them from this carnival of atrocities.

First and foremost, the film is utterly gorgeous and perfectly captures the atmospheric look and feel of the video game. The town of Silent Hill is painstakingly detailed to recreate the various locations in the game, and the blood and rust decor of the "dark side" is spot-on. I cannot imagine a better looking film in this regard, and much like the game, the town itself is just as important, if not more, than the people within it. There are very few directors whose work I endorse on their name alone, but Christophe Gans is one of them. When I first heard that he was directing "Silent Hill", I knew it would be something special. In addition to the awe-inspiring visuals, Gans further immerses the audience into the gaming world with a superb musical score, which is made up entirely of music from the first three games in the series (apart from a bizarre inclusion of Johnny Cash at one point). A brilliant, and again completely obvious thing to do, that I've never seen done in any other film. For anyone who has played the games, the music brings a chilling familiarity and emotional resonance to the film.

Plot-wise, the story is essentially a retelling of the events in the original "Silent Hill" (1999) game, with some elements of "Silent Hill 2" (2001) and "Silent Hill 3" (2003) thrown in. The most notable difference is that the main character is not Harry Mason, and is in fact a woman (Rose Da Silva). I would normally cry foul at this (take "Resident Evil" for example), but in this case I believe it was the right decision and actually makes for a better story. That's quite a switch from the norm. The characters in the "Silent Hill" games aren't so much individuals as they are psychological constructs and pawns. Harry is not an interesting character in the slightest, which gives players a blank canvas to paint their own personalities onto. This is totally appropriate for a video game where you have to become the main character yourself. Having a woman in the role brings more strength and emotional depth to the character, and also supports the mother-child theme and her motivations in a much more dramatic way. Think of the incredible dynamic between Ripley and Newt at the end of "Aliens" (1986) to see just how powerful this can be. Having a woman in the role also introduces a sense of vulnerability, even though physical strength wouldn't do any good in the psychological battleground of the film. Radha Mitchell does a fantastic job as Rose and delivers an excellent combination of strength, beauty, and vulnerability. After seeing her in "Pitch Black" (2000), I knew she would not disappoint.

But the film has its fair share of problems as well. The original script had no male characters in it at all, which would have really given the film an extra punch. Unfortunately, the higher-ups rejected the script and demanded that some men be added, which resulted in the painfully disruptive scenes of "reality" that are forcefully grafted onto the plot. They do nothing to serve the story, other than bluntly support the notion that Rose and Sharon may actually be dead. Removing Sean Bean's character from the film would vastly improve the story. The ten minute prologue also looks like a studio enforced afterthought and is laughably awful, setting up extremely low expectations for the rest of the picture. There are other problems as well, namely in the scripting department. Characters in video games don't speak much, so writing sensible dialog for them can be a challenge. Unfortunately, nearly every line of dialog in the film is awkward, inappropriate, and unintentionally funny. Apart from some necessary exposition here and there, I honestly think the film would be better served without any dialog. It would definitely enforce the utter isolation and helplessness that the characters experience. Most of the time the characters are just talking to themselves, and that's where physical acting, body language, and atmosphere should be employed to set the mood and tone. Rose's motivations can also be hard to grasp and comprehend, but I'm willing to allow some slack since the video games are intentionally vague and psychologically off center. None of what's happening may actually be real, after all. Sadly, it's the inane dialog that breaks the suspension of disbelief and makes "Silent Hill" a less than stellar outing.

Which brings up the most interesting question of all. Is a straight translation from a game to film even possible? "Silent Hill" is about as close as you can get to the video game experience, but is that enough to make an entertaining film? Deep and intriguing story elements are there, but can they be distilled into an interesting and engaging linear narrative? Certain elements simply don't translate well, most notably gameplay. Games like "Silent Hill" are all about fetching keys, unlocking doors, and unraveling the mystery of who you are and what the hell is going on. It's a journey of survival and self discovery using wit and strategy. How can you capture that feeling of self discovery on film if you're not actively participating? How do you make a scavenger hunt interesting if you're not involved? This is the same challenge that faces all filmmakers of the genre, and most of them respond by simply taking the characters and situations out of the gaming context and putting them into a conventional movie template, which has the unpleasant side effect of removing the aspects of the source material that make it appealing in the first place. In worse cases, the source material is only used as brand recognition to secure funding, with no respect to the culture that supports it. The game is compromised to fit in the film framework, as opposed to altering the film framework for the sake of the game. In the case of "Silent Hill", apart from the atrocious dialog, its biggest failing is that it's completely inaccessible to people who haven't played the games. Does that make it a bad film? More than anything, it depends on the who the audience is and who the intended audience is.

The good news is that film studios are finally starting to realize that people take video games pretty seriously and that they're not just for non-discriminating kids. Mature rated games like "Silent Hill" need to have R ratings to appropriately reflect the content as well as the people that play the games, regardless of the box office poison associated with such a rating. I was actually surprised that the major demographic on opening night was middle-aged codgers like myself, which I think says a lot about the current video game landscape. Much like the division of light and dark in the game, I'm definitely of two minds about the film. I found it disappointing, and yet extremely satisfying and thought provoking. As an adaptation it's superb, but on its own it lacks context, depth, and structure.