With the notable exception of Star Wars, it’s a bad sign when a science fiction or horror film is introduced with a long scroll of explanatory text. When, as in this case, the text includes indigestible chunks of prose about "savage experiments on orphaned children in an attempt to merge man with nature" the audience is put on notice that the either the plot’s back story is too senseless or the screenwriter is too inept to make graceful exposition an option. But then Alone in the Dark, directed (sort of) by Uwe Boll, is based on a video game. The least we can do is read the documentation before booting up.
The film begins with a flashback involving a kid on the run from an orphanage where the head nun, Sister Clara, is reluctantly involved in something nefarious with a professorial type in a brown beard. (Apparently savage experiments on orphaned children just, well, don’t seem right to her somehow…) After a fast forward twenty-two years to the present, Christian Slater – obviously the runaway boy all grown up — is introduced as paranormal investigator Edward Carnby, bearing an "artifact" from some distant realm. As Carnby disembarks from the plane and boards a taxi. the professorial type, now white bearded, barks an order into a phone, "Get the artifact…and KILL him!"
The resulting chase and fight scene between Carnby and an obviously superhuman thug is the most watchable part of the film. Slater has enough personality as an actor to engage the audience and his taxi driver, played all too briefly by Brendan Fletcher, is an appealing character, so for those few minutes at least, the viewer has some interest what happens. Unfortunately throughout the rest of the film the air steadily hisses out of the story, especially when Carnby’s love interest is introduced, a blonde, pouty-faced popsy played by Tara Reid who looks as though she’d be more comfortable at a homecoming dance than wearing glasses and transcribing hieroglyphics in a museum.
It’s not just that the plot, as with many bad horror films, is cobbled together out of snips and snails from better movies, like Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 28 Days Later, and even The Tingler. It’s not just that much of the dialogue seems to have been written using shortcut keyboard commands connected to a database of cliches ("I’m afraid you’re ill-informed superstitions aren’t enough to stop me," snarls the villain to one of his doubtful minions.) It’s not even just that the story ultimately makes no sense. The true coup-de-grace to this film is that the screenplay is paced, not like a movie, but like a video game, and the result is that what could be its one saving grace, peripheral characters who are interesting, engaging, and well acted, is neutralized.
A video game succeeds as a series of puzzles and fight scenes that the player must work out or survive, so a well-made game offers interesting minor characters whose sole function is to move those individual sequences forward. If these characters vanish from the story afterwards, the player is generally too preoccupied with solving puzzles and "surviving" fights to notice. That is not the case in a film. In Alone in the Dark, the minute somebody becomes interesting, they are going to either be killed off or unceremoniously written out of script, and the result is that the average viewer gives up trying to care.
There are fanged, scaly, computer animated monsters that hop around in a manner familiar to anyone who saw Ghost Busters twenty years ago. There are white-faced zombies baring their teeth and attacking. There is Stephen Dorff, wasting his time as a generic antagonist/buddy. There is a logic-defying story line involving doorways to other worlds, ancient civilizations, artifacts, and government experiments, all occasionally goosed along with voice-over narration by Carnby. None of it hangs together enough to make a coherent narrative.
It may be that another viewing and repeated readings of the manual that comes with the game would make it clear, but by the end, many viewers will be as baffled and as unsatisfied as they were when they were wading through the opening text.