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Pixel to Projector: Half-life

By  · Published on September 7th, 2010

Last week I tackled Portal; and the response was interesting. While I’d love to see Portal as a movie – that was really an intro-session into the Valve universe, and a step toward discussing my next Pixel to Projector nominee – Half-life.

Almost anyone that is a fan of first person shooters has a soft Spot for Valve Software’s launch title – and with good reason. The ever silent Dr. Gordon Freeman is iconic in the gaming community, as are many of the characters that fill his world. From Vortigaunts, The Combine, Alyx Vance, the ever present Headcrabs, and of course – the mysterious G-Man – Half-life is rich with characters and situations ripe for transition to the big screen.

While any fan knows that the Half-life saga has been told over multiple games and expansions, I’ll be keeping this article firmly in the original story.

Gordon Freeman is a theoretical physicist working at the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. While assisting in an experiment in the Anomalous Materials Lab, he inadvertently participates in creating a “resonance cascade” after pushing a non-standard specimen into the scanning beam of an anti-mass spectrometer – causing a rift in space/time that opens a portal between Earth and the dimension Xen. From said portal pours the unsavory residents on the other side, with a proclivity to kill everything in sight. Gordon survives the initial dimensional fracture, and finds himself the only human left capable of navigating the destroyed facility, seeking help, and eventually closing the rift – all while battling not only the alien lifeforms, but the Hazardous Environment Combat Unit sent to wipe the laboratory and everything inside of it, humans included, off the map.

How is this not perfect movie fodder? After the buggery that was Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s Doom, we could use an alien shooter with class – and anyone that is a fan knows that Valve pulled no punches on character development and atmosphere in this game.

What it would take to make it a movie

Not a thing more than what it already is – a well written story, with engaging characters, and a hell of a lot of gross aliens looking to eat you or stuff their ovipositor down your throat and lay eggs in your stomach. So far as complete packages are concerned in a clean and easy transition from your console to the big screen – Half-life is an easy sell.

Still, I have one thought…

Valve has a thing for silent protagonists, as like Chell from Portal, Dr. Freeman never speaks during any of the games – to the amusement of his peers, which is sort of fun. I like that it’s acknowledge during the game that Freeman isn’t big on words, preferring to do his talking via orange crowbar. Still, unlike my previous assertion that Chell need not speak for the entirety of the film based around her, I think it imperative that Freeman communicate in a Half-life movie – though I submit that it should be infrequently, well timed, and meaningful when he does. I always pictured Freeman as a sort of savant; many of the über-intelligent in the scientific community being fairly withdrawn; sort of in their own world. Dr. Temple Grandin, a high functioning autistic, describes my view of Freeman better than I could in describing herself.

She calls herself a primarily visual thinker, and that language – is her second language. Dr. Freeman is a brilliant theoretical physicist, and spends much of the game solving physics based puzzles – I like to think his silence has more to do with his having a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome. Really. It’s a great way to explain away his being the complete opposite of a social butterfly, and why his friends and colleagues in the game take his silence with a lot of humor and gentle teasing. Yeah, this is a movie about killing a giant-headed, floating, portal controlling baby alien (no…seriously), but that would be a fun and informative spin on Freeman’s strong, silent type persona.


Much like Portal, I’d keep the Valve team intact, with Marc Laidlaw – published science fiction author and architect of the original Half-life story, helming the screenplay. Throw in an established Hollywood screenwriter to ensure that the team is writing within Hollywood specs, and you’re good to go.


Who do you go to when you need immersive, sinister atmosphere, fantastic pacing that builds up to quality action sequences that are well worth the wait, and a spot-on soundtrack that creates tension in an audience? I believe you ring Ridley Scott – director of AFI’s seventh ranked best science fiction film ever, Alien. Scott knows action, is a master at creating suspense, and he’s got composer Hans Zimmer on speed dial. Ridley Scott does not need my further buttering up – his body of work speaks for itself.


I’m not really concerned over the voice actors for the Vortigaunts, or any of the other creatures Half-life features in the first go-around, and the same goes for the mostly anonymous supporting cast – but we’ve got to choose wisely for Gordon. Also, of course – we have to do right by the puppet master G-Man who arrives to rock Freeman’s world at the end of the fist game. These choices, they must be epic.

Edward Norton as Dr. Gordon Freeman: Norton is fantastic as a wormy guy with all the potential in the world to be a badass. From the Narrator in Fight Club, to Bruce Banner (who I submit was much more active and wiley while not hulking up than Eric Bana’s version of Banner) in The Incredible Hulk, Norton has a way with appearing physically out of his depth and coming off as a bona fide tough guy. Gordon Freeman has no business surviving the horrors that fill the Black Mesa Complex, much less fighting them head-on. Edward Norton would be ideal in portraying an atypical hero; a perfect choice to wield Freeman’s iconic crowbar. Also, come on – throw a goatee on the guy and some thick framed glasses, and he’s already halfway there.

Willem Dafoe as the G-Man: We gamers still don’t know who the time-bending, tie tugging G-Man really is, and how he can seemingly be anywhere he wants at anytime. The G-Man is an odd bird, all at once a sympathetic character and a possible sociopath. He both helps and hinders Gordon, and does so with a mixture of regret, knowing smirks, and something close to boredom crossing his face in different combinations – all while communicating in strange cadences with odd emphasis on words where they don’t belong. Basically, a part built for Dafoe. Nobody can blend calm and collected into batshit insane like Willem Dafoe (Special Agent Paul Smecker anyone?), and the command he has over his face makes him all the better for a part that while understated – still requires subtle but powerful communication of emotion; even if that emotion is veiled under what may be a layer of crazy.

Also, and this may seem like a strange close second – but I think I’d dig the hell out of Hugh Laurie donning the business suit and grabbing that mysterious briefcase in place of Dafoe if he weren’t available. I unapologetically love the guy…

Will it get made?

It may be super tentative and simply just talk, but Valve CEO Gabe Newell has already broken the subject of bringing Half-Life to theaters someday, and doing it on their own terms – in-house.

“Where we got into this direction was after Half-Life 1 had shipped. There was a whole bunch of meetings with people from Hollywood. Directors down there wanted to make a Half-Life movie and stuff, so they’d bring in a writer or some talent agency would bring in writers, and they would pitch us on their story. And their stories were just so bad. I mean, brutally, the worst. Not understanding what made the game a good game, or what made the property an interesting thing for people to be a fan of.

“That’s when we started saying ‘Wow, the best thing we could ever do is to just not do this as a movie, or we’d have to make it ourselves.’ And I was like, ‘Make it ourselves? Well that’s impossible.’ But the Team Fortress 2 thing, the Meet The Team shorts, is us trying to explore that.”

I’m not sure how legitimately promising this is by itself, because as savvy as I’m sure Gabe is in many arenas – the prospect of Valve bringing their baby to theaters wholly insulated from the Hollywood machine is probably pretty unrealistic. That said, that Valve has been turning this over in their collective head and are actually toying with the idea at all gives me hope. It’s certainly a less ethereal prospect than most of the game IP I’ve wanted to see adapted.

Will it be a box office success?

I think Half-life has all of the ingredients to make bank in theaters. The fan base is massive, if done right word of mouth would put even more butts in seats, and DVD sales would probably shore up the rest of the cash, making it a strong entry into the game-to-film experiment that Hollywood has mostly been failing. As long as Valve is deeply involved in the creative process of bringing Half-life to big screens, I have no reason to believe it wouldn’t be a success. Also – promises of sequels are never a bad thing when most of the truly epic events happen after the first episode. I’m calling it a winner.

That’ll do it for this week’s Pixel to Projector. Next Tuesday I’ll be tackling an iconic mid-eighties gamer staple. Prepare yourselves for knights, zombies – and Satan himself!


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