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film / tv / politics / web / celeb

May 12, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Dearest Pajiba readers, I have to open this review with a fairly verbose foreword: I love watching and reading and writing about films. I don’t have the temerity to claim that my job in doing so is difficult. Don’t get me wrong: Criticism isn’t something for everyone but, in a culture that spends much of its leisure time watching movies anyway, it’s a great thing to get paid to do.

But, just this once, indulge the doldrums of a spiteful critic: In my on-again, off-again tenure with Pajiba, I’ve begun to wonder whether this site, or at least my person, has become the butt of its own smarmy premise. For a film appraisal depot that alleges to be “Scathing Reviews for Bitchy People” — an exploitation of that well of indignity inside all of us that can be used for comedy — we’ve submitted ourselves to the process of watching truly appalling features and then trying to think of fresh ways to derogate them. And, as the only Pajiban who doesn’t live in a metropolitan area, and is thus denied access to most of the upper-crust flicks, many of the really rancid movies fall to me.

At first, this wasn’t a bad gig. Negative reviews are easier to write and require little to no reflection. For a year or so, I coasted on my knee-jerk responses, letting all the disappointments of my personal and work life accrue and then ejaculating them like a bolus of pure hatred onto the computer screen. But, as time went on, the stress of trying to out-hyperbolize myself in every review began to fatigue me. I lost count of how many times I wrote “trite” or “cliche” week after week, simply because I had exhausted every possible synonym, and even my own obscene metaphors began to wear thin. Everything I wrote felt mechanical, recycled. And, when my superiors threw me decent or moderate films as an act of contrition, I’d be so numbed to the process of sitting in a theater and sobbing in disgust that I’d have no idea how to write about them, either.

My point is, seeing movies like Son of the Mask, King’s Ransom, Bloodrayne, and The Perfect Man is something no human being should have to do. But consider me spent; my anger depleted. I’m done foaming at the mouth over movies in an effort to share the torturous experience of having seen them. I just don’t have the energy anymore.

And what, you ask, was the nail in my coffin? Stay Alive, the latest faux-horror claptrap to be denied advanced press screenings in an effort to stave off the mass expression of due abhorrence until after opening weekend. Directed by William Brent Bell, Stay Alive follows a string of contemporary horror films that aim to capitalize on the gamer demographic, a strategy that has led to a slew of notorious hits and (mostly) misses, movies that were almost always creatively bankrupt, whether they were direct adaptations of games or simply tried to appeal to the gamer mentality. The fatal error here is in the writing. Playing a game is a visceral experience; the plot is secondary. But watching a movie based on a game requires a story and characters to weave themselves into the action before the audience can appreciate the ambiance or exhilaration that make the game so memorable.

Stay Alive gives us absolutely nothing to get attached to. The movie feels entirely perfunctory; I wouldn’t be surprised if filming it took three weeks. The story: A gaggle of gamers discover an underground video game that kills its players in real life using the same methods that they’re dispatched with in the game. The script and imagery obviously ape The Ring, with some scenes coming close to outright plagiarism. Desperate for survival, several stock characters named Loomis, Swink, October, and Phineas — names that by themselves warrant death — uncover that the ghost of Erzsebet Báthory is behind the slayings and fumble their way toward stopping it.

The imagery here, de-clawed considerably to earn a PG-13, offers little in the way of creepiness. A few glimpses here and there of lurid demons recall the successful ambiance of the “Silent Hill” and “Resident Evil” series of games but do nothing to sustain a feeling of dread. How can it, when Frankie Muniz wears upside-down visors and shouts “Goddamn sweet!” between scenes? All of the characters are given slight, hackneyed bases — the hero with a troubled past, the eccentric genius, the smartass joker, the tortured love interest — none of this will amount to anything other than sheer gratitude when these characters meet their ends.

At least the films of Uwe Boll are amusing in a kind of masochistic, campy way. Boll does everything with naïve exuberance, oblivious to the stupidity of his material. The makers of Stay Alive just don’t give a shit. They’ve thrown together a crass, unthinking mess of a film without even the pretence of competence and given it to actors who earn hourly wages and a director who isn’t qualified to use safety scissors, and this cynical exercise serves no purpose but to slow the passage of 90 minutes and speed the disappearance of a ten-spot from a few innocent wallets.

Throughout the last quarter of 2005, the media was awash with stories about Hollywood’s third straight year of box-office decline, and almost uniformly there was a slant to these stories that implied it was a bad thing. I beg to differ. The endless litany of big-screen dreck represented by Stay Alive and its ilk has finally pulled the film industry to Lovecraftian depths of dejection, and the fact that people are finally starting to avoid the theaters is a good development. Because if they don’t care, dear reader, why should we?

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Stay Alive / Phillip Stephens

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