The PG-13 horror flick has become a genre all to itself. It’s a genre that typically lacks real intelligence, relying on gore and cheap jumpy moments to scare its audience instead of scary concepts to drive its plots. Every once in a while though, a movie comes along with some thought behind it as well as the gore and cheap jumps. Stay Alive is one of those movies.
The idea behind Stay Alive is really quite clever. Catering to those millions of EverQuest and World of Warcraft subscribers out there, the movie is about a killer game, much like the videotape in The Ring. The game is an underground title, which to enter a player has to recite a “prayer” that essentially casts a spell, closing the gap between the player’s real life and the horrific events of the game. It’s an extremely interesting gimmick for the movie’s plot, at least at first glance.
The game comes into the possession of Hutch (Jon Foster) when his friend Loomis dies (played by Milo Ventimiglia), in a pre-credit death to establish the plot a la Scream. Hutch’s bonehead friend Phin (Jimmi Simpson) suggests the group of gamers play the mysterious game in honor of their fallen friend, not realizing the game itself is responsible for Loomis’s death. Soon Hutch and Phin, as well as the brainy Swink (Frankie Muniz), Abigail (Samaire Armstrong), and the lovely October (Sophia Bush) find themselves fighting against the wicked Blood Countess and her computer generated undead minions to stay alive, leaving the audience to wonder why nobody in the movie has a normal name.
That name problem is just a joke, but it’s indicative of one of the problems with the movie, which is its inability to hold the audience’s interest. While the plot device is quite innovative, the execution remains pretty true to the PG-13 thriller formula (hence my comparisons to other films above). A theatre packed with the proper audience for a PG-13 thriller quickly grew disinterested, attention wanted, and conversations started left and right as focus drifted from the film's cliché plot: there’s a death before the credits, a death as we learn what’s going on, and then the characters start putting things together, still dying as they get careless.
The movie tries to make that last part a little interesting with the idea that the game keeps running even if they aren’t playing, thus excusing the players carlessness. But the end effect is the same – dead characters, most of which are predictable from the get go. There are really only one or two people whose survival is questionable, especially since the character types are so typical. Particularly entertaining is Muniz as the guy who figures out the “rules of the game.” Although as a geek, it’s pretty close to parts Muniz has played in the past, that doesn’t make it less entertaining; it’s a role Muniz has gotten quite good at.
By utilizing a video game plot device the movie invites a few new problems into the script. A particularly bad move, considering the gaming audience the plot will appeal to, is the inclusion of “movie computers” – you know, those computers that can access anything that normal computers wouldn’t be able to get near, like crime records? Or the fact that the game is a computer game, but gets played on gaming consoles at one point in the movie. At least the movie doesn’t overdo it on gaming lingo and gets a few interesting product placements in, such as the Alienware laptops the characters carry, differentiating them from the Macs almost every other movie out there uses.
Stay Alive brings a pretty original idea into play, but the execution is weaker than I would have liked to see. That makes the end result an interesting picture, albeit a predictable one. I’ll be interested to see how long it takes to get a game version of the movie’s game out on the market. Sadly, a game version of the movie would be pretty cool, but since most video game adaptations from movies tend to stink as much as movie adaptations of video games I won’t hold my breath.