Eventually, studios and filmmakers will crack the code of video game films. We have come to a time when there are more good superhero films than bad, but for decades, superhero films have never figured out how faithful to the source material and how hard they should try to appeal to the uninitiated. Video game films are in a tougher position because while superheroes had decades of narration, sometimes video games don’t even have stories (what is the narrative of?) Pac-Man?) and only as technology has improved have games put more effort into creating compelling characters and storylines than using them as the thinnest premise for gameplay.
And even if video games have put more effort into their stories, films that customize these games struggle to get them to the big screen. The Assassin’s Creed Games have a huge mythology that allows them to span eras, but the 2016 movie was a jerk for the most part. Tomb RaiderThe company, which pulled back when the games had thin stories and rebooted when the games got more action-packed, really tried to figure out how to translate the appeal of the franchise from one medium to another. Even a hit like Sonic the Hedgehog makes the bizarre decision to take a character whose signature feature is speed and put him in a car for most of the movie.
But already in 1995, director Paul WS Anderson managed to figure out how to make a thin video game plot and turn it into a fun movie Mortal Kombat. Oddly enough, Anderson would then take the horror series resident Evil and basically make it an action franchise, but that’s a different story for a different time. With Mortal Kombat, he went the line of taking the video game so seriously that there would be references for fans, but also understanding that you needed some kind of narrative that would appeal to people who had never played the violent video game.
Image via New Line Cinema
The solution, credited with a script Kevin Droney, basically the 1973 demolition Bruce Lee classic Enter the dragon. For those who have never seen it, the plot is that there is a criminal overlord running a martial arts tournament and in order to defeat that criminal overlord various martial arts goodies go to the tournament but each has their own personal reason for the competition. This plot fits in well with the game, which was about “winning” Mortal Kombat in order to prevent the forces of the outside world from taking over the earth. The challenge was how to fit such colorful characters into this frame.
Anderson correctly stated that the more you tried to explain these people, the worse you would feel. Take the time to explain why Kano has a metal eye or why Sub-Zero can control ice. This does not add to your story and only emphasizes the ridiculousness of what is going on. Far better to accept them at face value and hope an audience that has never played Mortal Kombat will ride them. Anderson uses this leeway wisely to make the film as entertaining as possible, like a scene in which Johnny Cage and Scorpion fight and then are transported into a hell dimension made up of cobwebs and ladders. Where is that dimension? How did Johnny Cage come out when he defeated Scorpion? Where did he get the signed photo he used for his death like he does in the game? It does not matter!
Image via New Line Cinema
This willingness to embrace the silliness of its premise is what makes the 1995 Mortal Kombat so much fun. Instead of turning away from the fancier aspects of the game, it leans towards them and trusts the audience to stick with them. Of course, there will always be viewers who tend to pick out every element of a movie for which there are no tortured explanations, but Mortal Kombat knows how to be airy and, based on its simple plot, give people the fights they are looking for. It is proof of how well the movie works that these fights remain PG-13 despite being an adaptation of a game known for its R-rated violence. In this way, Mortal Kombat moved away from the source material, but still gave fans enough of what they wanted to find a real adaptation.
It’s not that Mortal Kombat is a “great” movie. It’s cheesy, the drama is made of wood, and the final scene doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t matter because Mortal Kombat knows what it is at some level and isn’t ashamed of it. No attempt is made to “improve” the game, nor is there any attempt to make money so quickly that it completely ignores what people like about the source material. Instead, it moves between two competing audiences – fans and everyone else – and manages to create something that serves both. Even if you’ve never played Mortal Kombat before, you understood the concept of a martial arts tournament and evil forces wanting to take over the earth. The 1995 Mortal Kombat didn’t have to be amazing. It just had to be fun, and as the years have shown, that was a high bar that most video game films couldn’t clear.
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About the author
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Matt Goldberg has been an editor at Collider since 2007. As the site’s chief film critic, he has written hundreds of reviews and covered major film festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and their dog Jack.
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