Mortal Combat (2021) is the latest example of this trendTWITTER/MKMOVIE

On May 28th, 1993, Super Mario Bros: The Movie was released, and with it, the video game movie invasion began. In the thirty years since, Planet Earth has been subjected to a relentless stream of dull, mediocre-at-best, tear-inducing-at-worst, drivel.

One look at the Rotten Tomatoes percentages of films like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li or Hitman: Agent 47 are low enough to make any failing tripos student feel good about their exam results. And unfortunately, the release of the new Mortal Kombat film last month, and its ironically lukewarm, rather than sub-zero, reception, offers no hope of the genre breaking its curse anytime soon. So, the age-old riddle emerges once more: why don’t video game movies work, and how come they keep being released if they’re so widely despised?

The 1990s' imagining of Super Mario Bros. left much to be desiredTWITTER/GONINTENDOTWEET

First, to understand why video game movies don’t work, we need to consider why video games themselves do work. I think the best example with which to explore this enquiry is the original Super Mario Bros for the NES. This game, released in 1985, tells the riveting story of an 8-bit, 2D plumber waddling across a land where the ground is made of brick, on a quest to save a princess who is way out of his league from an oversized turtle who breathes fire. It’s hardly Pride and Prejudice, is it? And yet today, the game is heralded as a masterpiece and has sold over 40 million units.

Clearly then, what makes video games so fun and popular is not necessarily their storylines or characters (although some certainly have these in abundance), but instead the individual experience and gameplay moments that they offer the player. Additionally, video games are often abstract in a way that films are not, which leaves room for the player’s imagination.

When kids in the ’80s played Mario, they didn’t view him at a surface level — as a 2D, pixelated man with questionable fashion sense. Instead, Mario was abstract enough that he was anything the player wanted him to be, with many players likely placing themselves in Mario’s shoes and being the hero of their own adventure. Even the most photo-realistic video games of today facilitate this effect to some degree.

With this in mind, the reason why video game movies fundamentally don’t work, and never will if changes aren’t made, is because they cannot possibly encapsulate the unique experience each player had with the game into a single, two-hour picture.

The original design of the titular character from Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)TWITTER/WALLMARTCAGAMING

Films are not interactive, and present only the studio’s interpretation of what the game’s characters, setting and mechanics look like – things which usually would be left to the imagination of the player. In some cases, this latter point can result in nausea-inducing disaster.I don’t think anyone has quite forgotten what Sonic was originally going to look like in Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), nor how the Goombas of the Mushroom Kingdom were depicted in the Super Mario Bros movie.

I feel the only way video game films can escape their curse is by embracing the spirit of their source material. There should be an element of choice and individualism involved, instead of the experience being exactly the same for the thousands who watch it. I think this could be achieved most successfully by studios adopting a Black Mirror: Bandersnatch approach – allowing the viewer to choose what kind of a person their character is and what story arc they’ll ultimately take.

This is by no means a perfect solution, as the aesthetics of the game in the film will still be decided prescriptively by the studio, and it will still lack the element of extended free choice offered by video games. It may, however, be a start, and perhaps something we’ll see more in the coming decades as film increasingly moves from the big screen to the small.

“The only way video game films can escape their curse is by embracing the spirit of their source material.”

Having established why video game movies don’t work, and why they garner such negative reviews, a perfectly reasonable question can be posed — why do they keep getting made? The answer, in a word, is money. Film studios have no incentive at all to make films of this genre of good quality, because they know the value of their source material, and know the fans will pay to see the film regardless. For example, despite only getting a measly 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, Warcraft (2016) made over $400 million in the box office, and it will be this latter figure that will encourage studios to pursue similar projects in the future.

Seeing films like this be so successful leaves me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, it saddens me to know the budgets these soulless cash-grabs hoard could be far better spent on projects by people who have a vested interest in their subject matter.

The original Mortal Kombat film (1995) has become a cult classicTWITTER/PINGPONGFLIX

On the other hand though, while these pictures clearly fail miserably as films, there is still a great deal of enjoyment to be had in seeing them. Similar to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, films like the original Mortal Kombat (1995) are so hilariously bad that they end up being brilliant, to the point where they’ve gathered cult-followings over the years. Is this something that ‘good’ films like The King’s Speech or Schindler’s List can boast to have?

Video game films are not only the product of two fundamentally incompatible entertainment mediums, but are also at risk of becoming cash-grabs. However, this does not mean I wish for their imminent death, nor do I wish to tell the reader to boycott them so studios stop their production.

The whole point of a film is to give its viewers a good time, and if video game movies achieve this, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons, then long may they live. And in the meantime, I’ll be counting down the days until tickets for the upcoming Just Dance movie go on sale.


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