As an impressionable seven year old in 1994, video games ran my life. While kids were out doing arbitrary things like playing baseball and learning how to ride bikes, I stayed at home, playing the hell out of my Sega Genesis. I remember one day when my Dad brought home a huge, plastic-bound manual and a plethora of floppy disks for this new game he bought for Windows. That game was Mortal Kombat.
Any gamer will tell you that making the transition from console gaming with a controller to computer gaming with a keyboard is a rough transition. Yet, despite this, I can’t even begin to count how many hours I spent playing Mortal Kombat with my go-to character, Sub-Zero. Little did I know that the Mortal Kombat series would prove to be a largely important and pivotal franchise in the entire gaming industry.
…as well as having one of the worst film adaptations ever.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Release Date: August 18, 1995
In the fall of 1995, Mortal Kombat was released to the masses. With a budget of about $20m, it went on to gross more than $120m in sales. The game’s popularity (and infamy) helped aid this outrageous sum. What did not add to the film’s financial success, however, was the film itself.
Film adaptations of video games, especially those in the early 90s, were forced to create some resemblance to a cohesive plot that the games themselves tended to lack. Before the Mortal Kombat franchise went crazy with their attempts of crafting a story full of zombies, secret brothers, and incest (I might be making that last one up), the main premise of the first games was basically, “X Kombatant is invited to a tournament to the death against ninjas, Japanese gods, and Bruce Lee that will save the Earth’s fate.”
Of course, this simply wasn’t enough for Anderson and screenwriter Kevin Droney. While they took the framework of the basic premise, they attempted to expand on them to create some sort of character development for the film. One common element in video game adaptations is the creation of superfluous film-only characters. Thusly, Hollywood Liu Kang has a younger brother that fell for Shang Tsung’s advances, Johnny Cage has a karate friend (or SOMETHING) that’s invited to the tournament, etc.
Even the characters they DO maintain, they change dramatically. For example, Shang Tsung is a young man, as opposed to a deathly old man in the original game; Kano is a jerkhole with hair and not an awesome Australian; Reptile is a literal reptile that magically turns into a ninja by being engulfed by a cadaver. One of the biggest cosmetic changes made was to Scorpion. As the second-best Mortal Kombat character, Scorpion was destined to have amazing scenes. While he did take place in one of the better fight scenes in the film (more on this later), he was bastardized by the fact that his “GET OVER HERE!” spear was transformed into some anthropomorphic snake-rope-dagger… thing. WHY?!
However, none of the changes can even compare to the complete mischaracterization done to Raiden. Canonically, the Raiden of the Mortal Kombat game franchise is the selfless, god of lightning destined to protect the Earth. While this proves true in his film depiction, his personality is that of a cocky asshole. Unable to participate in the actual tournament itself due to arbitrary rules, the third-best Mortal Kombat character ends up playing the role of the wisecracking, withholding jerk that seemingly toys with his pawns. Here’s an example of how much of a jerk Raiden is (as well as the godawful plot/writing):
Raiden: There is one last rule. [Shang Tsung] neglected to mention it.
Liu Kang: [Sonya] has to accept the challenge, or there can be no final Kombat.
Raiden: I have nothing further to teach you, Liu Kang. You possess the knowledge.
Speaking of the writing, I touched a bit upon the “expanded” plot development from the game. While Mortal Kombat wasn’t anything more than two guys fighting in something resembling a tournament, the film attempts to depict a REAL tournament by having “sanctioned” fights. However, the transitions between such fights are so confusing, you wonder exactly what kind of information was lost in the jump-cuts. There are some fights that take place in front of Shang Tsung and the others, such as the fight between Sonya and Kano, that helps the film add in the iconic “FINISH HIM!” line to the film. Then, there are other fights that take place completely away from the others, the most memorable of which is between Johnny Cage and Scorpion.
The fight scenes themselves are so underwhelming. As I’ve so subtly pointed out throughout this feature, I feel strongly about certain characters. What draws audiences to adaptations themselves are the fans of the source material. And such people will come into the film expecting their favorite elements incorporated into a feature film, creating a new level of understanding. With Mortal Kombat, the two main elements you’d expect from its film adaptation are insane Fatalities and each character’s special moves. Yet, there aren’t any REAL Fatalities in the film, and the special moves are relegated to niche, super brief scenes. It’s as if the filmmakers held on to these scenes and teased audiences with them with slight glimpses scattered throughout the film to remind us that the film was based on Mortal Kombat. Yet, they come off as nothing more than super-cheesy gimmicks, including the aforementioned “FINISH HIM!” lines, Scorpion’s “GET OVER HERE,” as well as the climactic/predictable Liu Kang bicycle kick and fireball.
Take, for example, the first actual fight of the film, which doesn’t even take place until an absurd 40 minutes in: Liu Kang vs. Sub-Zero. In a fight where Sub-Zero was kicking Liu Kang’s ass, Kitana appears out of nowhere, develops telepathic abilities to mind-talk to Liu Kang, who then uses a water bucket to create an ice spear that kills Sub-Zero. How can anybody take the coolest Mortal Kombat character and ineffectively nerf them into a role that, ultimately, depicts him as nothing more than a slightly-stronger henchman? Furthermore, in a 2:30-long clip, the first instance of his ice powers don’t arise until 90 seconds in, which is then “powered up” by another 45 seconds, before his untimely and un-Mortal Kombat-like death. Not cool.
The problem with an extremely-violent video game like Mortal Kombat is the loss in translation when adapting it into a PG-13 film. It’s no surprise that the tone of the film is considerably softer than the video games’ in order to capitalize on ticket sales. However, this creates the most pivotal problem of the film: The entire draw of the Mortal Kombat franchise IS the extreme depictions of violence. You take that away, and all you’re left with are cartoonish, super-powered characters that aren’t that much different than any other fighting game roster.
I understand that changes must be made for ANY adaptation; the successful adaptation is one that stays truthful to the source material, while also introducing new elements that don’t betray the foundation of which it’s founded on. Yet, with Mortal Kombat, too many unnecessary changes were made. Again, this can most likely be an unfortunate (but understandable) side-effect of the film’s rating. Yet, even when the filmmakers returned to the Mortal Kombat universe that was way more honest to the franchise itself with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, it’s clear that nobody could really capture what made the franchise so popular in the 90s.
And that is why Mortal Kombat is a BADaptation.