“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.
A few years ago, I got back to our apartment after visiting family for Christmas. My partner was still out doing the same, so I had the place to myself and hit that special feeling of nostalgic loneliness that only seems to come up around the holidays.
The world is generally peaceful. The rush of gift shopping is done. Everything is quieter and covered in snow. Everyone and everything seems to take a deep breath as if to celebrate making it through one more year.
I probably flipped through social media to waste some time before getting tired of it because folks tend to swear off that habit in order to be present with their families. Being exhausted myself, I didn’t want to work on any projects or even play any video games. What I could really go for? A movie.
The holidays are a time to relive fond memories or settle in with something cozy. But I didn’t end up watching some sort of sappy feel-good fare or cartoon or comfort movie because nothing felt quite right. What felt right was slowly falling ash on a quiet, forgotten town.
And so began my holiday tradition of watching Silent Hill.
I never played the Silent Hill video games. I still haven’t. Even though I adore horror movies, I’m a giant wuss when it comes to horror video games. My anxiety is only barely manageable as it is, thank you very much, so interactively engaging in something that relies on tension and jump scares as the form of entertainment is absolutely never going to happen. Ever. (But, I will watch other people’s misery until the end of days.)
What this means is that I really have no frame of reference for anything that happens in the movie, and I decide to remain willfully ignorant of all of it. This movie is the magic I need during the holidays. I don’t even need it to make sense, and it doesn’t make sense when considering the actions of its characters.
Usually, I try to find some unifying theme to pull out when reflecting on older movies. There’s a lot to be said, even in movies that may not be critically impressive. I’m not going to do that now. I’m just going to appreciate Silent Hill for what it is. And that’s lovely grotesqueness in the midst of the ridiculous.
The story centers on the Da Silva family, specifically Rose and her adopted daughter, Sharon. Sharon suffers from sleepwalking. One night, she walks out to a cliff face and nearly falls down its depths. Rose tackles her in time, but Sharon screams out the name of her hometown, a hometown that’s been condemned and abandoned as a general health hazard. Rose’s brilliant idea is not to find Sharon a qualified therapist to deal with what is obviously some unresolved trauma from living in such a place or losing her biological family. Instead it’s to take her right back to the place of that trauma over the protests of her partner.
The movie is called Silent Hill after all, I guess, so we better find an excuse to get there.
On the way, they stop for gas and directions. Sharon struggles with some involuntary artwork because it’s a low-key possession movie. Her distress alerts a motorcycle cop for some reason, who decides to essentially harass them for the crime of not wanting to talk to her. There’s some lip service to the fact that Officer Bennett had helped rescue another child at the hands of a nefarious adult, but she only comes off as paranoid and aggressive. Of course, Rose doesn’t make this any better by deciding to start a high-speed pursuit with the officer. Lest we forget, she has her young child in the car with her as she crashes through gates to get to a town that stands on top of an ever-burning coal fire. What is wrong with these people?
It’s just … a series of weirdly bad decisions or intentional obtuseness from most characters. Chris, the father, is played by Sean Bean (who doesn’t die!) and is the only one seeming to act rationally. He cancels the credit cards because Rose practically kidnaps their daughter and he’s desperate to find some sort of medical solution for Sharon. He still wasn’t sending law enforcement after her. He’s obviously worried about both his wife and daughter’s general well-being and works through the movie to get in touch with Rose and bring them home. His only interaction with law enforcement is because they are also looking for this missing officer and are actively trying to cover up the dark tale of the town.
Anyway, so after the cop provokes Rose into playing Fast and Furious (which, to what end, Rose? Beating the cop to Silent Hill isn’t going to magically help your daughter.), they spin out and crash, Rose wakes up to her daughter missing and the world changed.
And the movie generally goes downhill from here. Rose chases after child-shaped beings, convinced they’re Sharon. And one asks, why wouldn’t your child come to you when you call for her? Upon discovering a crucified, radiation suit-enshrouded, still-breathing person, Rose doesn’t hightail it out of town. When the fire babies come (I’m just going to let that phrase go forward without explanation to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie), Rose is nothing but the stereotypical horror trope of someone who can’t stay standing or open a door. The babies disappear, we fade to black and Rose awakens in a bowling alley with Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” playing on a jukebox. Throughout all this weird stuff, she never acknowledges how outside of normal this experience is. It’s very much “Well, that’s over. Better go get my kid.”
I love it. The movie doesn’t take itself seriously at all, except in all the places where it takes itself perfectly seriously.
Like Phil Collins going hard af at creating the Tarzan soundtrack or Frankie Laine writing the main theme to Blazing Saddles, no one seemed to tell the visual artists or dancers hired as monsters that this movie wasn’t supposed to be good. This movie has absolutely no right to being as beautifully grotesque as it is.
Rose’s primary contribution, on the other hand, is to run to the next gorgeous design or effect.
She meets Sharon’s biological mother, Dahlia, who speaks in prophecies and riddles. Rose ignores that. After Dahlia lunges at her, Rose finally calls Chris to apologize and lets him know she is in over her head. Officer Bennett shows up and misreads the situation with Rose-like skill, handcuffing Rose in the middle of fog, falling ashes, missing roads and an acid-spewing monster because everyone prioritizes so poorly in this movie.
It is on that arrest that Rose finally says what we’re all thinking: “I don’t think you understand. There’s something weird going on.”
Maybe this all makes sense if you play through the video game franchise. I don’t want that, though. When that siren goes off and Pyramid Head shows up, it’s just so perfect. This movie is filled to the brim with unexplained and tortuous nooks and crannies. The piano piece “Promise Reprise” (lifted from the Silent Hill 2 game) creates a perfect juxtaposition of foreboding and beauty.
To be fair, plenty does make sense within the world of the movie. But maybe a movie where the most sense-making plot points are “cult obsessed with burning children and witches” and “barbed wire tentacle monster” demonstrates that it’s best to not question it too hard. I think, ultimately, I just appreciate watching any characters live and interact within a world that has three layers and hints of a good mythology throbbing beneath its surfaces.
Even if, as with many child-based horror movies, I end up rooting for the monsters.