“Based on a video game.” Are there five words more reviled in the realm of cinema? Only two such films have topped 60% among Rotten Tomatoes critics while 11 of them have hit the 10% mark or lower. Not one has cracked the half-billion hallmark at the global box office. So few unlocked achievements, so many respawns. Oftentimes, the only thing less fun than watching someone else play video games is watching someone else make a video game movie. This month, we’ll find out if the latest Mortal Kombat film is boss level or a misfire along the lines of Leeroy Jenkins. In the meantime, Game On looks at some of the more interesting, inspiring or, yes, insufferable video-game movies. Good, bad, average. It’s all about the experience points.
There’s a rather obscure Adult Swim show named Decker starring comedian Tim Heidecker as a Jack Bauer-style superhero of a CIA agent. With each episode clocking in at under 15 minutes, the show has production values that resemble a teenager’s fumbling attempts at using Adobe Pro in a school project. Meanwhile, Decker himself is a hilarious amalgamation of macho cliches — his face a constant grimace, a gun always drawn to take down the next terrorist threat that only he has the wherewithal to face.
Alone in the Dark, director Uwe Boll’s 2005 adaptation of the video game of the same name, is like the straight-faced version of Decker that — despite having a budget of $20 million — looks only marginally more professional and features Christian Slater as one of the silliest protagonists to ever grace the screen. Perhaps most astonishing, however, is that Alone in the Dark was given a wide theatrical release. Putting a movie this visually unpleasant on the largest screen possible is like stopping your car to lean in and smell a dead raccoon on the side of the road; some things just aren’t meant to be experienced up close and personal.
The trouble starts before a single character shows up with an opening text crawl that — in the first of many baffling filmmaking choices — is read aloud via voiceover narration. Hearing sentences like “The Abkani believed that there are two worlds on this planet, a world of light and a world of darkness” spoken out loud does not do the writing any favors. Even worse, it’s more than twice the length of your average Star Wars text crawl and infinitely stupider. It’s here we learn that an archaeologist named Lionel Hudgens holed up in an abandoned gold mine to perform “savage experiments,” which turned orphaned children into creatures known as “sleepers.” It’s fascinating stuff.
About 45 minutes later, the text crawl ends and the film acquaints us with the coolest, toughest guy you’re likely to ever meet … Edward Carnby (Slater). Who is Edward Carnby, you ask? Well, we know by his duster jacket, sunglasses, and low-cut T-shirt that he is not a man with whom one should trifle. We also know from how he jolts awake after a nightmare during a plane flight that he has some demons. When the little boy in the seat next to him says, “My mommy says there’s nothing to be afraid of in the dark,” we know from his response of “Your mother’s wrong, kid. Being afraid of the dark is what keeps most of us alive” that Edward Carnby has no time for your bullshit. How can he? As a supernatural investigator, his life is filled with more breakneck excitement than your average Jane or Joe not wearing a duster jacket could handle.
Carnby arrives in the Big City to look into his friend’s death that he believes may have been caused by these “sleepers” from another dimension. Of course, he first needs to stop by the local museum to look over some ancient Abkani artifacts. There, he runs into anthropologist Aline Cedrac (Tara Reid, in an amazing bit of miscasting). Again, it’s the brilliant little details that tell us so much about Alone in the Dark’s characters: Aline may be gorgeous, but we also understand from her glasses and the clipboard she carries around that she’s a bonafide genius. And as if these character dynamics couldn’t get any more compelling, she just happens to be Carnby’s old flame. She slaps him. How could he have left all those years ago without saying anything? But she can’t stay mad at him for long. She knows the dangers of the life he leads.
It’s not long after where we’re treated to what could generously be described as the first action set-piece. There are several remarkable aspects worth noting in this sequence. One is that it takes place in Carnby’s apartment, which is roughly the size of an Amazon shipping warehouse, complete with massive stone pillars and large, wooden crates that are perfect for the faceless SWAT team goons to take cover behind when they’re shooting at large CGI creatures. Further, Boll makes some intriguing decisions in how he shoots the action. Rather than showing, say, the monsters taking damage from machine-gun fire, or even the people themselves reacting to this sudden siege of interdimensional beings, we get many close-up shots of the guns themselves firing. Just machine guns firing and firing away as riffs from a dollar-store version of a Rob Zombie song chug along mindlessly in the background.
That specific brand of inept filmmaking is ultimately what makes Alone in the Dark such a perversely entertaining exercise. Nearly every decision Boll makes is not only the wrong one, but one so terrible that you didn’t even realize it was an option to begin with. Even seemingly easy-to-shoot scenes of characters walking down city streets are lit with such intense brightness to make it seem as if your television’s motion smoothing has been left on. Not a single element here works, but by God, you’ve still gotta hand it to Boll: As infamous as the video-game movie genre is for its terrible quality, he might have made the absolute worst one.