Silent Hill (United States/France/Japan, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When it comes to movies based on computer games, Silent Hill is not the Holy Grail, but it's a step in the right direction. The film is overlong, with too many unnecessary scenes (a lot of the movie seems like pointless running around), but it packs in a few scary moments and offers a nicely ambiguous conclusion. In Silent Hill, atmosphere trumps storyline. The movie is creepy throughout, but the plot seems designed primarily for those with "insider" knowledge of the game. It takes a lot of thought to decipher, and I'm not sure all the clues are there. Nevertheless, I understood enough of what was going on not to feel completely lost, although I don't know if I could explain everything in a convincing fashion.

As the film opens, young Sharon Da Silva (Jodelle Ferland) is in the grip of a bad dream that has taken her out of her house and to the edge of a cliff. Nightmares and sleepwalking have become a regular part of her nightly regimen, and her parents differ about what should be done. Christopher (Sean Bean), the practical one, believes that medicine and time in a hospital will cure Sharon. His wife, Rose (Radha Mitchell), disagrees. She decides to take Sharon to visit the mysterious locale in which her nightmares take place - the abandoned town of Silent Hill, which sits atop a mine that has been on fire for three decades.

Rose and Sharon's arrival in Silent Hill is brutal. They are involved in an automobile accident when Rose swerves to avoid a girl who dashes into the road. When Rose recovers consciousness, her daughter is gone. Rose tries to phone Christopher, but her cell phone won't function properly. Accompanied by Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden), a police officer who pursued her into Silent Hill, Rose sets off in search of Sharon. At its best, the town is an eerie place - a crumbling relic with the sun hidden by a fog created by falling ash. At its worst, during periods of inexplicable blackness, it becomes hell on earth, with demonic beings and zombies rising up from the ground.

I have never played the game Silent Hill, but that didn't stop me from appreciating some of what director Christophe Gans (who displayed a similar visual flair in Brotherhood of the Wolf) puts on the screen - although I suspect aficionados will have a better grasp of what is transpiring. Silent Hill looks great. The town is suitably eerie and the periods of darkness are ominous. The movie is all about visual appeal, feel, and tone, because the story underwhelms. The plot concerns Rose tracking down Sharon, going from place to place and following clues until she discovers the truth about her daughter and Silent Hill's dark past. Meanwhile, Sean Bean is wasted as Christopher. His subplot could have been excised. All he does is wander around, mostly in the rain, learning the town's history and trying to find out the fate of his wife and daughter. One expects a payoff from his activities, but there isn't one.

Radha Mitchell normally does smaller movies, but her experience from Pitch Black serves her well here; she's credible as a mother who will fight off hoards of dead to save her daughter. Although the supporting cast is not littered with household names, it features a few recognizable faces. In addition to Bean, there's Deborah Kara Unger, Kim Coates, and Alice Krige. Krige is no less sinister here than she was as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact.

With a running time 30 minutes shorter and a less baffling storyline, Silent Hill might have been a real winner. One can forgive the cheesy dialogue - this is, after all, not Shakespeare - and the predictably gory climax. But I don't like leaving a movie feeling that I missed out on something in some way. This is an improvement over game-to-movie clunkers like Resident Evil and Doom, but it shows that filmmakers have more work to do if they want to make a movie with appeal that spreads beyond a core audience. It's somewhat of a mystery, however, why Sony didn't hold any advance screenings. Silent Hill does not reek of the rot that usually clings to movies withheld from the critics until opening day.

Silent Hill (United States/France/Japan, 2006)

Director: Christophe Gans
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, Laurie Holden, Jodelle Ferland, Deborah Kara Unger, Kim Coates, Alice Krige
Screenplay: Roger Avary
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Music: Jeff Danna
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2006-04-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1