Most movies based on video games suffer on the big screen when they have to be scripted and acted. Alone in the Dark was one of 2005′s worst movies, and Doom wasn’t much better. 2006 saw the spawning of yet another video game movie, Silent Hill, and it’s more accomplished on a technical and visual level, but it still doesn’t quite get there. Director Christophe Gans (2001′s Brotherhood of the Wolf) and screenwriter Roger Avary (2002′s The Rules of Attraction) try making sense of this video-gamey world for non-gamers, but the finished product mistakes sloppiness and confusion for ambiguity.
When her adopted daughter, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), begins sleepwalking and speaking of an obscure place known as “Silent Hill,” desperate mother Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) ends up finding the place and losing her daughter inside the foggy, ash-snowing West Virginia ghost town. Her first clue to stay away should have been from a waitress’ ineloquent warning, “Road don’t go through no more.” If Rose wants to find Sharon, she must “face the darkness of Hell,” which includes Alessa (a fiendish Ferland), who could be Sharon’s twin. Meanwhile, Rose’s husband, Christopher (Sean Bean), goes searching for his family in Silent Hill, where he’s accompanied by a detective (Kim Coates), but there’s no sign of them.
Inspired by the 1999 Konami survival horror video game, Silent Hill sounds like it’d be an above-average Twilight Zone feature, but it’s largely two-plus hours of repetitive running around — which seems to happen every fifteen minutes, a siren sounds over the town before “the darkness comes” and Silent Hill transforms into a black-as-ash otherworld. Walls decay, cockroaches chase Rose, a pyramid-headed figure drags around a giant knife, ghoulishly faceless nurses wield scalpels and seem to be doing the “Thriller” dance, etc.
It’d be a lie to not call Silent Hill a great-looking production of atmosphere and surreal, startlingly nightmarish style, with some of the most imaginatively grotesque and truly hellish imagery seen in a long time. On the flip side, there might be too much CGI. Some of the darkly lit sets for this world are so obviously shot with a green screen that the danger doesn’t always ring true, preventing the movie from having much “there” there. And when Avary tries explaining the town and its witch-hunting fanatics with scratchy historical reels and expository dialogue, the backstory will still elude even the most close-watching audience member.
Jeff Danna and Akira Yamaoka’s musical score is at least effective, blending foreboding menace and vaguely innocent, off-kilter piano keys. Then there’s the dialogue, which is so laughably stilted and state-the-obvious (“You saw that, right?”; “It’s happening again”; “They used to say this place was haunted… I think they were right”) that it makes one wonder why Hollywood never banned the making of talkies.
Mitchell draws enough empathy — her Rose is a devoted mother who won’t give up on finding her daughter — and because of her, we’re never in doubt that Sharon really is hers, but the role merely asks her to clomp around with a flashlight or a lighter (which, with all the running she does, seems to never flicker out). Alice Krige brings a sinister presence to the role of a Christian cult zealot named Christabella who sets “witches” on fire, but as the overly nosey Cybil Bennett, Laurie Holden’s leather-clad police officer wardrobe seems more designed for a Strip-O-Gram cop.
It might be worth recommending as a purely hyper-visual horror film, but the slick visuals and fake blood are in the service of a lot of baffling nonsense at a needlessly long 125 minutes.
125 min., rated R.