They have often been described as the future of entertainment, a way of having the interactive concept inherent to games mixed with the cinematic elements of film. Titles like Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Devil May Cry have all pushed the boundaries of strategy and scares, combining the best aspects of movies with the interesting aspects of first person participation. Indeed, modern gaming allows people to feel like they're part of the storyline, subjected to the same horrors happening onscreen. So it was no surprise when Hollywood came looking to adapt titles into full fledged motion picture presentations. With a built in audience and most of the filmic basics (plot, characters) taken care of, they seem like an easy entertainment well to draw from. Perhaps this is why 2006's Stay Alive is so slight. Without an established game to pull from, and a rather routine view of what makes something scary, we end up with the antithesis of the entire video game/film ideal – a movie that fails to live up to the expectations of either medium.
When best bud Loomis and a few of his friends die after playing an underground video game called Stay Alive, law intern Hutch is really rattled. Inseparable since a young age – and a tragic family accident – Hutch shared his love of gaming with his recently deceased pal. When the rest of his interpersonal entourage – café owners October and her brother Phineas, talented tech head Swink, Hutch's boss Miller and newcomer to the group, Abigail – want to play the supposedly fatalistic title, our hero is intrigued. He's curious to discover what Loomis was up to before his death. Unfortunately, after a night of shooting and strategy, another member of the clique winds up dead. Soon, it seems anyone who dies during the game ends up meeting a similar fate in real life. As his companions are killed off, one by one, Hutch tries to decipher the mystery of the game's origin, and the local legend surrounding its storyline. But more importantly, as a player of the seemingly haunted title, Hutch must do whatever he can to help everyone Stay Alive – even if that includes facing off against an ancient terror with blood on its mind.
While it is not the worst horror movie ever made, Stay Alive is surely one of the most derivative. Granted, it tries to use the jargon and insider slant to bring the underground ethos of gaming to the mainstream, yet it is really nothing more than a standard "fantasy becomes reality" fright flick. It offers nothing but the most transparent characterization, pedestrian plotting, and kills that occur in the shadows, or mainly offscreen. For fans of the genre, there have been better (Silent Hill) and worse (House of the Dead) game-inspired efforts, but Stay Alive wants to be the first that turns the mocked up console and fully rendered graphics into significant story points. The only problem is, the concept is as old as Atari. Back in 1983, Emilio Estevez fought off a series of Space-Invaders like entities in the "Bishop of Battle" sequence from the otherwise ordinary omnibus scary movie Nightmares. So porting us into the post-millennial, photo realistic era to manufacture macabre is like just teaching an old dog a new, not so novel trick. Yet even with all its new fangled bells and whistles, Stay Alive can't overcome its derivative elements to be anything other than dull.
Part of the problem here is, of course, the demographically designed cast. Since the average video game enthusiast is older than one might expect, director William Brent Bell has hired actors from that most substantively suspect group – the below thirty generic generation. This is not to say that the performances here are bad, they just suffer from a shallowness derived from their addled age bracket. No matter how hard he tries, Frankie Muniz (as uber dork Swink) can't be anything other than an arrested adolescent. Similarly, Goth Gal October (played by the interesting Sophia Bush) seems shipped in from an alternative rock video. Our main hero Hutch is ill-defined and bland, while his suddenly significant gal pal Abigail gets none of the necessary backstory we need to keep her from being a big fat red herring. With such a muddled motley crew, it is hard to get a handle on whom to root for. And since we know the narrative is going to reduce their number by one or two every few minutes, the need to connect is severely undermined. The result is a mechanical byproduct that can't deliver the requisite thrills or the genre chills. Instead, Stay Alive relies on its varying visuals (some good, most average) and the novelty of new technology to try and get by.
Sadly, it's a hard sell. The game at the center of the story borrows heavily from Fatal Frame, and if you're not familiar with the whole role playing, first person shooter, survival horror ideal, you may be less than intrigued by this aspect of the narrative. Also, Stay Alive seems to change strategies halfway through, arguing that players have to die in the game in order to be killed in real life, and then hedging on that prerequisite to push along the plot. Then there is the whole subplot involving James Haven. He is supposedly the inventor of the game, or merely beta-testing it (it is never made clear) and while Haven makes for a creepy character, the truth is he is similar to Abigail in his ability to steer us from the truth. We don't know why he's important to the story, just that he is, and as a result, we are left with several unanswered questions that never get resolved. Indeed, a good way to describe Stay Alive is as a movie that has far too many gaping plot and logic holes to hold our interest or get under our skin. Instead of being frightened, one is frazzled by all the confusing coincidences and lackadaisical logistics. Even with its goofy gamers insights, this is still a stagnant excuse for scares.
Highly touted as the "Unrated Director's Cut" of the film, Stay Alive looks a little shoddy in this new revamped version. Video game scenes excised from the theatrical print because they weren't completely finished or lacked any narrative value are reinserted, and elements from the third act of the film (the budding romance between Hutch and Abigail) are taken in a decidedly different direction. Also included are more of Jimmi "Phineas" Simpson's annoying sexual slang, greater drug references, some bonus interaction between the gaming buddies, and an additional amount – be it ever so minimal – of nudity and gore. The result is the inclusion of 15 minutes of material, extending the film's running time from 85 to 100 minutes. Sadly, this makes the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image look choppy and inconsistent. Obvious inserts do not match for clarity and color, while the underdone game effects look a little too homemade, even for a low budget Hollywood horror film. This is a clear case of trading content for technical polish.
Aside from the reverberating sound used as a thematic cue throughout the film, Stay Alive doesn't provide a very compelling Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix. When "inside" the game, we get a little of the claustrophobic atmosphere we expect from such scenarios, but in reality, the overall presentation is flat and fairly innocuous. Your subwoofer will get quite the workout every time the character's controls start vibrating, and there is a nice metallic quality to the frequently overdone "slicing knives" sound effect, but in general, this is not a reference quality aural experience.
The added features here, while interesting, offer nothing really important in the way of context or clarity. First up, director Bell and co-writer/producer Matthew Peterman deliver a self-effacing audio commentary that dishes the dirt while it simultaneously supports the duo's efforts. While they keep the backslapping down to a minimum, they really do believe this is an excellent combination of gaming and horror. They are very good about pointing out where the director's cut differs from the original release, and just can't get enough of Jimmi Simpson's curse-laden lunacy. Some of the casting anecdotes are entertaining, and the general discussion is eager and genial. Still, if you're looking for a cutting dissection of where this films succeeds, and fails, you won't find such sentiments here. As for the rest of the extras, there is a two minute highlight reel for the CGI and physical effects work, as well as a strange opening menu option where, in pure gaming style, you can pick a character, their clothing, and a weapon. After creating your 'player' you enter 'the game' to see the results. Usually, it's a film clip highlighting one of the narrative's deaths. If there is a 'winning' move, this critic didn't bother looking for it.
Depending on your idea of a good time at the movies, Stay Alive will either be an awful outrage or a decent b-movie diversion. A few will dig its glimpses of Gothic horror, while others will feel a kinship with the kids at the center of the story. Still, to rank it anywhere above a Rent It would acknowledge entertainment aspects that are just not there. While never completely boring, this film is just not that compelling either. As a result, it really deserves a Skip It. You will not be missing anything if you avoid this crappy Commodore 64 experience, and if you just have to see every game-inspired title that comes into the market, you have been sufficiently warned. As the next generation of console creations pushes the boundaries of interactivity and invention, there may yet be a good combination of film and fear in the offing. But Stay Alive is definitely not it. Instead, it's a loose excuse to claim technology and terror in the same scenario. In the end, it gives both ideals a bad name.
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