There are two things about the Silent Hill franchise that I love. The first is the incredibly involved, convoluted backstory that the developers have not only been able to create, but to continue tying together even after so many entries. It gets a little contrived or uninteresting at times- the way that Silent Hill 4 was retconned into a Silent Hill game after starting out as something outside the series is readily apparent- but they really go for it with the demon gods and burned witch children and David Lynchian examinations of the evil apparent in small towns.
The other part is the psychological examinations of the characters through the design of the town and monsters. When people talk about wanting to create broader conversation about video games and the inherent artistic nature of the medium, something like this is important- the games have always been great at exploring real themes that other developers balk at. Furthermore, the development of these ideas through creative enemy designs and story elements using such underutilized-in-games devices like “metaphor” and “symbolism” show that the core of the series is deep and mature, a perfect way to examine the screwed-up nature of the flawed protagonists.
Unfortunately, most of these great ideas and themes are wrapped in games that don’t really play well. We all know that the first Silent Hill wound up creating a lot of its moody fog just because of technical limitations, but it seems like the developers were never really able to get over this, even in the modern generation. Combat is always janky, exploration could use some work, and the developers have started to lose track of how to really develop the mood now that we’ve gotten to the point where draw distances can be an entire continent.
It seems like the best way to enjoy the series is to have all of the psychological and character development, but none of the gameplay- and that’s why the movie seemed like such a perfect fit for these games. Who needs bad combat and weird puzzles when I can have a great story just unfold like a movie and still get the same ideas out of it?
Then you remember it’s a movie based on a video game, and for some reason people just can’t quite figure those out. This one seemed to have a better chance, though. Director Christophe Gans claims that he’s a huge fan of the series, and had apparently been lobbying for the rights to do the Silent Hill movie for 5 years before he got the chance. He made such a good impression that Konami Japan and Team Silent even came over and started working on him all the way through. It all seemed like it was coming together so well! The team that made it was involved; the director was a huge fan of the series; the screenwriter even did (uncredited) work on some of Tarantino’s earlier movies. What could possibly go wrong? Well, I’m here to let you know.
One of the most important problems is the fact that the crew decided to combine story beats from the first 3 games into one script. The challenge with this comes from how deep the story is in the games. It’s much easier to dole out a long and complicated story in a 10+ hour game, but you take three games full of their own themes, story arcs and insane characters, throw them together, and come out with something that’s supposed to be both its own thing AND a retelling of these games. You’d have to give that bad boy a 3 hour running time to even start fitting everything in right.
Furthermore, you wind up with the movie not really getting into the psychological aspects of the creatures, instead going for a broad selection of Greatest Hits from the series. You want Pyramid Head? The Nurses? Grey children? More of the Nurses? You’ll see them all and more! But really, not that much more because let’s face it, these are the best known of the series, which is why even the games come up with pointless reasons to put them in by now. While it is possible to talk about how they show something about the characters, it’s a basic “she hates bugs SO DEMON BUGS” instead of something truly insightful.
The story winds up being about Rose and her adopted daughter, Sharon. Sharon has a ton of nightmares about a place called Silent Hill, so Rose decides to get in her car and take her there. After swerving off the road to avoid something in the road and they wind up in Silent Hill, the weird other-worldly place full of ashes from the fires that burn under it perpetually and dark secrets and frightened people. Every now and then, with the sound of an air raid siren, the world changes into a dark version of Silent Hill, full of monsters and a lot of gross-looking environments. As she tries to find more about her daughter and the town, Rose discovers all kinds of disturbing history, including some intense religious extremism and a cult that attempted to burn a young girl to death. After slowly meting out some of the story, the director then just goes “subtlety? Nah, son, narrated flashbacks” and, cutting out all room for ambiguity and interpretation, gives you an extended fade-to-white recap of every event they possibly could.
This brings a separate problem in- namely, how bad the script is and how hammy the dialogue can be. There’s so much ham in this movie it’s like a Christmas dinner. When it does come time to actually explain everything, then, it doesn’t even have the decency to flow like a thing that normal people would say. It’s incredibly stilted and comes off as a self-important first draft. Despite the fact that the movie goes out of its way to spell itself out in other parts, a lot of dialogue also seems like everyone’s talking in pointless riddles for no discernible reasons. This is especially apparent in Sean Bean’s story, which is full of dead ends, pointless characters and a whole lot of obfuscate dialogue. Then again, this is also probably because his character and story were only added in later because there was a distinct lack of men in the story.
This doesn’t mean that this movie is some weird feminist screed about women taking charge in times of peril (though it does pass the Bechdel test handily). It is totally possible to go on about some perceived symbolism in the main 3 female characters (duty to family, to the law, to their god) and say that the film is important for its treatment of the material, but it’s not. It just has a lot of women, but quickly boils it down to “this one is good and this one is bad” instead of exploring any moral middle ground.
What do you get when you throw it all together, then? In my opinion, you get yourself one of the best game-to-movie transitions out there. It does capture a good amount of what makes the games special: it’s super stylish, with great cinematography and well-designed and utilized monsters; it follows the formula of investigating the mystery of the town, interspersed with running from said monsters in a continued attempt to figure out why everything is so messed up; even the weird and stilted dialogue winds up making the script seem more like something that started in another language and was translated over (although that doesn’t really excuse it because it wasn’t, so it shouldn’t sound like that).. The film does wind up being a little confusing, what with trying to balance a whole series’ worth of mythology and plot into 125 minutes, but the main points are explained, and you can come away with a better understanding of what happened than a lot of the critics seemed to pretty easily.
I actually really like this Silent Hill movie. I feel it effectively creates a mood of dread and mystery in the beginning parts, and if you don’t know the nature of the universe going in, the nature of why the town is so weird and full of monsters is actually really dark. It’s nice to look at, too, with the creature effects particularly enjoyable, and the transitions from real world to dark world are incredibly well produced. It’s easy to find yourself dreading the sound of the klaxons in the distance, especially as Rose gets further and further into the story’s climax.
The part the movie is missing, though, is the extra depth the games are known for. This is partly because the movie didn’t really do much for the monsters except include a collection of the popular monsters you’d have wanted to see. Of course Pyramid Head is there- he’s more or less the mascot of the series by now. But he doesn’t have the same impact as he did in Silent Hill 2, what with being a representation of a desire for self-punishment and torment over the protagonist’s previous crimes. Instead, he’s Pyramid Head. He rips the skin off of a woman and throws it at someone. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar- but in a series known for that cigar actually showing a deep-seated desire to escape a failed relationship and the guilt of having those feelings, it’s a disappointment to see the movie cast so many opportunities for further themes aside.
It also raises the question of what the point of a video-game adaptation should be. Should they just be a retelling of the story in a game presented in a way that brings in a new, larger movie-going audience? Or should it be a further development of what goes on in the games, adding to the themes and continuity? Most movies go for the former, which does a lot to establish the problems inherent in game stories. It’s still difficult to talk about the story in a game without the qualifier “for a game” being attached, so simply adapting that, as they did with Silent Hill, is a bit of a bummer. This series deserves a smarter approach from someone more adept at telling deeper stories in a stylish way, but what we have here doesn’t quite do that. Enjoyable though it may be, die-hard Silent Hill fans will be disappointed by the handling of the source material, and complete newcomers will likely be confused by the dense story.
The fact that I enjoy Silent Hill as much as I do really just shows that I’m the perfect type of audience for it: a fringe-fan who loves the mythos more than the gameplay, who’s happier to spend a sleepless night enjoying the insane depths the creators of the series went to just to put meaning into something. Instead of doing the same in the movie, the creators show areas that could be deep and involved, then cast them aside or leave them as a shallow example of what could have been shown in a much smarter way. I feel like they were close. I’d like to say that the sequel has a chance to be a better movie, but given its recent critical panning (and I mean panned worse than the original’s 20% on Rotten Tomatoes), it doesn’t seem they’ll be doing it on the second go around, either.