Silent Hill is crap.
It’s rare that I make such an absolutist statement about a film. I will qualify it later, but for those of you who are stating that it’s really a good film: you’re wrong.
Again, it’s bordering on the end of the world for me to state that another person’s subjective opinion is wrong if it doesn’t tally with mine, but from what I’ve seen in reviews it’s mostly people who played the game who have the temerity to state that Silent Hill is a worthwhile film.
In October last year I had a discussion with a friend who is a computer games player and a movie buff. Doom had just come out to horrendous reviews. He bemoaned this fact to me and said that Doom, the game, had a really great back-story. My response was that if the interesting back-story wasn’t on the screen then it didn’t matter.
He then went on to laud Silent Hill the movie to me (based on trailers, etc.), and even went to so far as to offer me a bet that it would be a great film. I declined the bet, but told him that I had never seen a good adaptation of a computer game to the silver screen, and while I was sceptical about his optimism I would hold out hope for the film.
I should have taken the money.
Silent Hill is directed by Christophe Gans, who is best known for his French high-action flick BrotherHood of the Wolf–a film I like a great deal despite its problems. It is written by Roger Avary who has a number of interesting, and not-so-interesting titles, tucked under his belt already. I’m very aware that filmmaking is a collaborative process, and often the studio system can skew the true intentions of the writer and/or director. In this case it’s hard not to point to Gans and Avary and ask: “What the hell were you thinking?”
For instance, in the first five minutes of the film the direction was irritating me. How the camera moves, where it’s placed, and what it focuses on should be seamless. It should not draw attention to itself except when it is a reflection of the action and/or emotion that’s being captured. Generally, a director tries to convey an explicit style in his/her film. In Silent Hill every shot in the book is used: overhead shots, crane shots, tracking shots, close-ups, contorted angles, low-angle shots, etc. The effect is distracting and exhausting. There is no consistency, and no sense of overarching structure behind the scenes. I would imagine that Gans thought that he had such a system in place, but I could not spot it.
Yet, the screenplay deserves special attention. I almost can’t marshal my thoughts about how badly this film is stitched together. My over-riding feeling after watching the movie is that Avary was trying to be faithful to the video game. Unfortunately, the tropes of the video game do not work in a movie format; hence we have a series of clues that the main character follows, lots of running around, exposition dumped on the audience in sections, with a particularly heavy load smothering the action towards the end, and the obligatory sequel set-up in the final scene.
When you tease out all the unnecessary sequences and dig into the heart of the movie you discover a core story that is insubstantial and unoriginal–yet the film is over 2 hours long (but it feels much longer).
Radha Mitchell, who plays the protagonist, Rose Da Silva, didn’t convince me, but I’m willing to concede that her character was badly established and her motivations were unclear. Sean Bean was wasted as the ineffectual husband, Christopher. Jodelle Ferland was great as Sharon Da Silva, and her afflicted counterpart Alessa.
The set-up of any film is very important, but especially in a thriller/action/horror genre. Your audience must identify with the characters and their plight, and care what happens to them.
Sharon sleepwalks persistently, and we’re told takes medication for other afflictions that are unidentified. Yet in the opening sequence of the film Sharon manages to get out of her luxury home that’s perched close to a dangerous waterfall and almost falls to her death. Where’s the security system in this house? If my daughter had a habit of sleepwalking I think I’d have the doors locked and the alarms armed. I might even move to a place where she’s less likely to get killed by just walking out the back door.
You might think I’m nit-picking here but when the film requires the audience to overlook basic common sense then you know you’re in for trouble. It indicates that the writer/director didn’t think these questions are important, and didn’t bother create a convincing world. It implies that the audience is so dimwitted that they’ll be dazzled by the special effects and won’t notice the glaring absence of logic, consistency, and story. In that opening sequence Rose has to run out wearing her underclothes, and her husband, Christopher, is immediately signalled as unimportant due to his bumbling incompetence.
The biggest problem in the film occurs immediately after this. Rose decides to take her young daughter to a ghost town, underneath which fires burn in the mines and emit toxic fumes, plus she does so without telling her husband. What? Once a mother puts her daughter into jeopardy the audience won’t pull for her. The fact her daughter says the name of the town, and scribbles in dark crayon is not enough motivation to risk her life. Quite quickly afterwards Rose is needlessly rude to a motorbike cop, Cybil Bennet (Laurie Holden), and later madly drives away from the cop after she’s been pulled over, and rams into a gate that closes off the town of Silent Hill.
Again, where are the motivations? No one who is trying to keep a low profile pisses off a cop–especially not motorbike cops who are notoriously severe on out-of-towners. It’s ridiculous. However, since the plot requires the cop to be in Silent Hill with Rose we are supposed to swallow these senseless actions as valid. Far too often the characters in Silent Hill take actions only to advance the plot. All it would require is a little re-tooling, and some imaginative thinking to overcome these problems, and the guts to depart from the video game.
Then comes the running around. See Rose Run. See Rose scream out “Sharon” and run. See Rose get attacked by monsters and get saved at the last minute.
You just don’t care if this idiotic, passive mother lives or dies.
Sure, at this point we have the lovely set designs, the monsters, and the CGI, but it doesn’t hide the fact that the story is flimsy and the characters uninteresting. It is also not scary, which for me is a big sin. Everything in the film is signalled in a clumsy fashion. As soon as I saw the cop I knew she wouldn’t survive the film, which is a pity as she was the only character for which I felt a smidgen of compassion.
I’m not even going to tackle the confusion of time in relation to Sharon’s birth, Alessa’s attack, and how long it’s stated that Silent Hill has been empty. It doesn’t make sense.
This is a simple revenge story that’s been jazzed up with effects, and complicated with ridiculous characters.
The coolest monster of the lot–Pyramid Head as he’s known in the game–is never explained. I recognise his type: he’s a “Big Boss” or “Level Monster” from a video game, but in the film he should serve a purpose other than of randomly terrifying the characters.
It’s often recommended to screenwriters that they watch bad films in order to learn from them. This is the only reason to watch Silent Hill.