DeFlip Side #134: The Freeman Chronicles

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Let’s call his timing suspicious.

Fresh on the heels of the smash Half-Life fan film Enter The Freemanwhich I told you about here on DeFlip Side a few months ago—J.J. Abrams has announced plans to make big screen adaptations of the games Portal and Half-Life.

The news immediately made me think of the scene in Star Trek V, where Kirk confronts the entity at center of the galaxy with a dubious question:

“What does God need with a starship?”

Because Abrams’ announcement forces me to ask: What does Abrams need with Half-Life? Why would the Hollywood powerhouse in charge of the two biggest Science Fiction franchises in history choose now to develop a relatively obscure property like Half-Life?

You may have missed this news, since it was completely overshadowed by the bombshell that Abrams—credited with resurrecting Star Trek’s commercial viability—has joined forces with Disney to helm Star Wars Episode VII.

But at the 2013 DICE Summit—the premier gaming con in the industry—Abrams and Gabe Newell of Valve (the company behind Half-Life) announced that they would be collaborating to bring both Portal and Half-Life to the big screen.

So again I ask: Why Half-Life? Why now? Half-Life has a tremendous fanbase to be sure. But unless you’re talking Tomb Raider or Resident Evil, video game film adaptations have underperformed or been outright flops. Why would Abrams risk tarnishing his golden track record on a gaming property that has been dormant for almost a decade? Which brings me back to Enter the Freeman.

Enter the Freeman took the Half-Life fan community by storm three months ago, premiering on Machinima’s YouTube channel and quickly going viral. And now the creative team behind this phenomenon has launched an indiegogo campaign, asking fans to help them raise enough cash to continue the story in a six-part web series called The Freeman Chronicles.

I can’t help but wonder if Abrams is drawing inspiration from all this. The gritty, entertaining fan film from director Ian James Duncan proves that a compelling Half-Life adaptation is not only possible, but can actually work well within the Abrams aesthetic. Enter the Freeman packs no less than 46 lens flares into its short 11 minutes. I counted.

But kidding aside, this speculation may not be so far-fetched. In fact, Gabe Newell of Valve, who is partnering with Abrams in the Half-Life adaptation, says such inspiration will be all but inevitable in today’s media landscape. As quoted in the book Generation X-Box: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood, he says:

“What’s going to happen is that the Hollywood guys will start to realize that the creation of entertainment isn’t a one-way experience where they have all the professional tools and giant budgets and everything flows downhill from there to the consumers. If they’re collaborating and cooperating with their fanbases to create these entertainment experiences, you will see the same kinds of things occurring – most of it will be terrible but some of it will be brilliant.”

Mark Laidlaw, the writer of the Half-Life video games, expressed similar views when asked specifically about Enter the Freeman in an online interview with the website New Rising Media:

“We’re humbled that we inspire so many people to undertake these epic projects… because they want to be true to the world and make something that feels like a part of it. We always encourage them. With the introduction of… more powerful movie-creation tool(s), we are seeing more astonishing little films all the time.”

So the video game’s creators, at least, value the contributions of the fan community. But even if Abrams does as well, he and Newell have done nothing more than shake hands and express good intentions. Whether he’s inspired by Enter the Freeman or not, Abrams’ vision of a big-screen Half-Life will be years in the making—if it ever happens at all.

Director Ian James Duncan on the set of "The Freeman Chronicles."

Luckily, Half-Life fans don’t have to depend on it. While Duncan would like to raise $75,000 with his indigogo campaign, he says The Freeman Chronicles will happen no matter what. The fundraising, he says, will only help augment the series’ creative scope:

“We will make this series happen. We’re planning to do it no matter what. The more money we can raise, the more actors, locations, monsters, special effects, action sequences we can bring you.”

Whatever the final product, I can’t wait to see what Duncan has up his sleeve for The Freeman Chronicles. When you consider the outstanding production values of Enter the Freeman, it’s exciting to think what Duncan might accomplish if given the resources to express his full creative vision.

And his commitment to finishing the series not only underscores how much he believes in that vision, but also how much he understands and respects the fan community. He’s not asking Half-Life fans to throw money at a spec project that may never happen. He’s inviting them to play an integral role in making The Freeman Chronicles the best series it can be.

J.J. Abrams doesn’t discount the fan factor, either. When making his Star Trek reboot, Abrams reached out to James Crawly, the star and creator of the web series Star Trek Phase II, the most popular Star Trek fan production. Crawly not only got a tour of the set; Abrams gave him a cameo in the film.

So I encourage Duncan to pick up Freeman’s bloody crowbar and run as far as he can with The Freeman Chronicles. It’s a pretty safe bet that Abrams will be watching.

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Watch a preview of The Freeman Chronicles!