There’s a paradox in video game cinema. The industry’s stalwart money-making techniques of rampant special effects and gratuitous sexuality have, while nabbing some successful releases, ultimately failed so far in crafting a proven formula for adapting interactive entertainment into consistently lucrative film franchises. While porting over similar budgets to more talented production crews may inch the transition closer to profitability, the twenty year past with video game films have made them toxic assets, a quick cash in on the momentary popularity of a video game license. The paradoxical solution to the problem then surfaces: if the necessary innovation towards good video game films cannot be found in basic Hollywood, it must be discovered in independent cinema. However, it is this same independent cinema that must also include the spectacle trappings of big budget films to attract a wide enough market for profitability. It seems like an impossible compromise, asking low budget crews to film beyond their means in order to attract more wealthy companies into the fold.
…Enter “Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy.”
Made on a micro-budget of 10,000 Euros (or $13,000,) the film is the product of a small group of Italian students turned filmmakers. The film was made available for free this past September, and can be found for both streaming and downloading (on multiple formats) at http://www.mgs-philanthropy.net.
There isn’t a more film-worthy video game character than Solid Snake. The biggest argument lobbied against his native franchise of Metal Gear Solid is that the cutscenes – while cinematically presented and intricately dialogued – are too long. Taking the series from the HD to the silver screen would seem common sense from a producer’s standpoint, but so far the grizzled special-ops soldier has yet to have a Hollywood adventure. He has, however, managed to make an appearance in an Italian non-profit fan film, and if Snake’s future in theaters is as bright as captured by Hive Division, then action films have a new leading man.
Set in 2007, at the brink of the second Metal Gear Solid (Sons of Liberty) game’s opening exploits. Solid Snake has joined with the radical fringe organization Philanthropy, whose aim of ridding the world of the walking weapons of mass destruction known as Metal Gears fits right into his own. His mission right now is the infiltration of the “Overnight Nation,” aka a small Middle Eastern area in the made up Daskasan region near the Armenian border. Snake’s initial initiative is the recovery of United States Senator Abraham Bishop. However, the mission quickly takes a turn for the near-supernatural as the region holds a weapons facility with many uncomfortable secrets.
Snake is not alone in this discovery, however, as he is joined on this mission by sniper-extraordinaire Pierre Leclerc and soldier-recluse Elizabeth Laeken. The former sports a more laid-back attitude and acts as the film’s philosophical voice towards the second half, with the latter having an unnerving past of dead commanding officers behind her. As Snake’s personality clashes with his officers, secrets about them all are slowly revealed as the tension – and gunfire – mounts.
The story of ‘Philanthropy’ oozes Kojima-love from the first frame onward. Lofty prose mixes decently with the series’ patented technical double-speak, the result successfully recreating the feeling of a Metal Gear game for the most part. The unfortunate byproduct of such a close translation is that the film also recreates the initial difficulty inherent in the franchises’ opening moments. Fans of the series will immediately tack onto the buzzwords and adore the near-cheesy techno-militant style, but new-comers will most likely feel uneasy in the presence of such a mixture of cinematic traditions. Those that stick with, however, will quickly acclimate to the style and by the time the character Elizabeth is introduced, will surprise themselves by how deep their interest in the narrative has grown. ‘Philanthropy’ also manages to tackle the game franchise’s occasional self-reflexive humor, although the effect is 100 times tackier in film form.
The script is solid throughout, with the occasional breach of sense detracting from the immersion. The film’s English dub does a decent job for most scenes, with its more obvious lapses in translation breaking the narrative absorption only enough to be humorous. Solid Snake’s dubbed voice is incredibly true to character, enough to give him an emotional dimension that the dub regretfully strips from most other characters.The biggest complaint that arises from the plot is its ending, a horrendous sputtering out of blatant cliff-hanger lines that feels more incredibly rushed. Considering how much of the film’s anemic length is spent on the expositional mission briefing, the lack of a balanced epilogue feels cheated.
The most astounding thing ‘Philanthropy’ has in its favor is its special effects, epitomized in vista and landscape shots that easily rival anything from Hollywood. Model work has its moment in 360-pan glory as well, in a level of pride that is refreshing to see such independent work taking. The Metal Gears themselves also receive an exceptional degree of authenticity as well, even while admittedly lacking in the final polish that most Tinseltown money shots. Bullet shots are above average, and bloodwork is incredibly well done for the 1% it’s not completely digital. Sound design wise “Philanthropy” fares better than expected, the assorted electronic background beeps adding their expected layer of believability (and yes, the codex call sounds are included and done as well as that mechanic can possibly be.) The sound editing shines brightest with the Metal Gears, their animalistic wails of pain and grunts of effort successfully bringing out the mech’s bestial under-tones to light. The costumes recall the game’s most recognizable assets with impressive attention to detail, Snake’s own uniform bearing all the iconic trappings expected.
The final rearing of Hive Divison’s fan-boy head is the film’s framing, most non-action scenes shot with noticeable reverence to the game franchise’s cinematography. As the adrenaline picks up the film takes more distance than the video game series was comfortable with, the production crew favoring sweeping low angle tracking and panning shots that – while departing from the Kojima aesthetic – look bloody cool. The ratio between dialogue and action mirrors the games, with a couple run and gun set-pieces spliced a bit too heavily towards the end. Oddly enough, the film sports a couple of digitally over-exposed shots that add nothing to the scene, and only distract the attention of the viewer.
“Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy” is the best movie based on a video game in history. And it’s that exact fact that is hopefully going to change as more people hopefully become aware of this independent gem. The story runs into a brick wall at the end, and the directors seemed to favor an over-exposed motif for no apparent reason, but at its core, it’s a fan project that can serve as a newcomer’s entry into the franchise it adores. From its costumes and cinematography to its script and its acting, “Philanthropy” is not only a glowing tribute, but an independent film that can stand on its own right. Hollywood, take note, this is how you do it.