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How MORTAL KOMBAT Set the Stage for Video Game Movies

Paul W. S. Anderson’s big screen adaptation of Mortal Kombat is often looked upon with confusion, and even derision. Back in 1995, gamers hoping for the blood-drenched, fatality-filled vision of the Outworld were disappointed with the PG-13 movie. Critics who wanted something more cerebral and less tropey lambasted the film. As the years have gone by, the effects and costuming have become easier to mock and jeer at. But for fans of the film like me, those are also its charms: Its life as martial arts-heavy blockbuster relying on practical effects, the humor and ridiculousness of an R-rated game reimagined as a PG-13 adventure flick, and a killer leading performance by Robin Shou. But no matter your feelings on the film, there’s no question that Mortal Kombat marked a milestone in Hollywood for how studios adapt video games.

Though they might still be fighting to be seen as an art form, video game movies have become a regular occurrence at the box office. But before 1994, the only video game movies were Super Mario Bros. and Double Dragon. While the former is remembered for its strangeness, the latter is generally forgotten, having barely scraped $4 million at the box office. 

Things changed when Street Fighter spinning-bird-kicked its way into the world in December 1994. Although that widely derided movie made an unquestionable impact with a $99 million box office that established video game movies could make money, it was Mortal Kombat that would change everything.

Sub Zero prepares for a combat

New Line Cinema

While Mario Bros, Double Dragon, and Street Fighter worked really hard—maybe too hard—to build new narratives around their iconic characters, Mortal Kombat feels like you’re playing through the game on story mode, going from one fight to the next. This Enter the Dragon-inspired setup ties the film to the actual experience of the game itself. Taking the time to bring what fans really wanted to see—the fights—to life on screen tied together with the loosest and simplest hero’s journey archetype worked. It made the film feel visceral and authentic, even with that PG-13 rating.

That rating is interesting as it almost redefined the legacy of Mortal Kombat. The games were so controversially violent that they’d been the subject of congressional hearings. But New Line Cinema created a PG-13 world that was incredibly lucrative. That fact would impact a few adaptations like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and DOA: Dead or Alive. But the game’s inherent violence and the success of its adaptation would actually lead to far more R-rated video game adaptations, including director Paul W. S. Anderson’s next big video game franchise.

Seven years after Mortal Kombat became the most successful video game movie ever, the director took on Resident Evil for Capcom. The R-rated movie was a massive hit, inspiring studios to adapt additional dark and edgy horror games, from Alone in the Dark to House of the Dead. We’d likely be seeing a totally different selection of video game movies if the first huge success hadn’t essentially been a horror game.

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New Line Cinema

Anderson’s part in this can’t be underplayed, as his arrival on the scene changed video game movies forever. The director has helmed six movies based on the Resident Evil series, which together have grossed more than a billion dollars. Anderson’s next film will be another Capcom project as he takes on the massive Monster Hunter. It’s hard to imagine that this would have happened had he not been hired to bring NetherRealm’s biggest fighting game to the screen.

The Mortal Kombat film’s narrative follows one of the oldest arcs in storytelling: the Hero’s Journey. We meet Robin Shao’s Liu Kang, a man on a quest for revenge who is thrown into a strange new world. From there, he has to team up with unexpected allies to defeat evil before they make it back to their homes as changed people. It’s hardly the most original story in the world, but Mortal Kombat‘s success meant that the slim yet effective outline would be lifted for many other video game adaptations, from Lara Croft’s debut outing to stranger and more horrific fare like Bloodrayne and Resident Evil. Even later stage entries like Assassins Creed and, to a point, Detective Pikachu follow the narrative lead that Mortal Kombat established.

Speaking of the particularly delightful Pokémon movie, Detective Pikachu takes from one of the most interesting trends that Mortal Kombat unintentionally set. Due to multiple casting issues, including broken legs and more than one death, the 1995 film ended up with less bankable stars than intended. After it nevertheless achieved big box office success, video game movies seemed to be less bothered about casting huge stars, instead focusing on characters and, of course, directing their budgets to fight sequences and special effects. Even though Detective Pikachu does have one big name, as Ryan Reynolds voices the titular critter, the human “names” of the film appear to come second to the true stars: the Pokémon.

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New Line Cinema

Another interesting and divisive ramification of Mortal Kombat is the fact that it set up a successful structure for a sparse-at-best script. Characters barely have an exterior or interior lives; they’re archetypes there to fight the bad guys and save the day. There’s a surprising amount of silence too as the crew faces down the strange supernatural space of the Outworld. Action comes first here, with a dedication to martial arts and practical sequences that have clearly had far more attention paid to them than the words that come out of any of our heroes or antagonists mouths. Mortal Kombat is about spectacle and, of course, recognizable IP.

Many video game movies going forward would adopt this structure, for better or worse. If you need a recent example, watch the Sonic the Hedgehog movie and count the Olive Garden jokes. The studio behind that film knew that most fans just want to see the blue spiny creature running fast and collecting gold coins, rather than pondering the meaning of life, or even having any kind of legitimate or relatable goals to achieve. But films like Detective Pikachu are bucking this trend with wider worlds, more humanity-driven stories, and thoughtful takes on important issues like animal testing, eugenics, and human hubris.

Of course, one of the most memorable and influential parts of Mortal Kombat is its soundtrack. The platinum-selling Mortal Kombat OST, filled with metal and techno, created the blueprint for how video game movies sounded for at least a decade. It’s especially interesting when you look at how different the soundtrack is to the songs that filled the Billboard 100 in ’95: R&B and pop acts like Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, and Madonna. But the sound of Mortal Kombat imagined a harsh electronic landscape to fit its video game origins, and the financial success of the soundtrack proved that the film was onto something. Even as techno and metal stayed on the edges of popular music they became ever present in video game movies. You just have to look—and listen—to its successors like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Alone in the Dark, and Doom to see and hear its influence.

Over two decades after its release, the impact of Mortal Kombat can still be felt. With a new highly-anticipated martial arts-heavy entry into the MK cinematic universe coming in 2021, we’re sure that the legacy of the franchise and its films will be making waves for many years to come.

Featured Image: New Line Cinema

Rosie Knight is a writer who adores waxing lyrical about the things that she loves. Follow her on Twitter!