FILM REVIEW – MORTAL KOMBAT (2021)
There has a been a long running history of video games being adapted into bad movies. Mortal Kombat (2021) fits right in with that tradition. The franchise has existed (in video game form) for nearly three decades. There was already a slew of adaptations, most notably the Paul W.S. Anderson directed effort from 1995. That film has been remembered for its campiness as well as The Immortals song, “Techno Syndrome” which has basically become the theme for the entire franchise. This latest reboot has so much history to dive into that it can reference itself – the cinematic equivalent of an ouroboros.
Why are video game movies so bad? Part of that answer involves the level of immersion games and movies provide. Both allow a gamer/viewer to enter a world and go through an experience they would not be able to otherwise. The difference is the level of control. Often, you’ll hear people say of games “It was like being in a movie,” but that isn’t entirely accurate. When a person plays a game, they contribute to how that experience will play out. They help dictate the outcome. One person may breeze through a game in a matter of hours while another may take weeks, or even give up before completion.
Movies don’t operate the same way. With film, the experience is the exact same for everybody: the runtime never changes, the actors never change their performances, and the story never switches things around. All of the elements on the big screen remain fixed. One’s enjoyment of a film is based on what they bring to it – their own personal views, their life experiences, their beliefs, etc. – it all plays a role on whether or not they will like it. A big issue with video game movies involves filmmakers trying to recreate the experience of the game within the framework of cinema, which is really difficult to do. The controller is metaphorically taken out of our hands. We are forced to watch someone else play the game for us, which is no fun at all.
Have you noticed that I’ve gone three paragraphs without really talking about Mortal Kombat? My reasoning: Well, what exactly do you want me to say? It comes up short in just about every category. From a story, character, and action perspective, it’s forgettable. The special effects are unremarkable, the dialogue is stiff, and the fight scenes (despite being well choreographed) are hidden under choppy editing. For anyone new to the franchise, this is not the best place for an introduction. Hardcore fans will probably get a kick out of all of the Easter Eggs and callbacks riddled throughout the narrative. Many will giggle with delight as they watch their favorite characters execute their signature moves (or “Fatalities”) which was the main attraction of the games. But that’s pretty much all this has to offer – nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.
Is anyone really interested in a story here? Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is an MMA fighter who discovers that he is one of the chosen few to help defend Earth against evil forces. We learn that the universe is made of different “realms,” each partaking in a deadly tournament, appropriately named “Mortal Kombat.” The dark Outworld – led by the soul eating sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) – is intent on defeating the champions of Earth (or Earthrealm) to conquer and control all other realms. Cole is believed to be a powerful force that can stop Shang Tsung, and so he aligns with fellow champions Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), and Kung Lao (Max Huang). However, on Shang Tsung’s side is Sub-Zero, a powerful fighter whose ability to manipulate ice and water make him a near unstoppable foe.
The biggest disappointment of Mortal Kombat is having the potential to tell an engaging story but not exploring it all the way through. The opening prologue introduces us to two rival warriors, Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) and Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Centuries ago, they battled one another in a bitter feud. Their hate spans through their bloodlines, and between realms. The dynamic between Bi-Han and Hasashi sets up a good emotional undercurrent, with the opening scene effectively showing off their skills as warriors as well as their central motivations. Although the two develop into the franchise’s most popular characters (whom I will not reveal here) the narrative completely ignores them. The strength of the opening scene is pushed aside, left in storage until the climax (which just happens to be another effective set piece). Why take your two best characters and treat them as background players?
Does Mortal Kombat offer all the bloody violence and cheesy one-liners that fans are familiar with from the games? Yes, it does. Does it bring anything new to the table or provide a fresh perspective on this property? No, it doesn’t. It’s not good enough to be taken seriously, and it’s not silly enough to be a tongue-in-cheek farce. It exists as pure fan service. For those that are looking to have the same experience as playing the video games, it might be more beneficial to just play the video games.