RE-POST: Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

I missed this 4th of July’s ‘Independence Day’ rewatch due to being sicker than paint, but here’s my yearly post on why it’s among my personal favorites.  

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            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s pulp sci-fi done as an epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, single, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are  reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.

The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.

I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.

I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Compare – Contrast: ‘Street Fighter’ vs. ‘Mortal Kombat’

The two biggest fighting game franchises of their time (and ours) were adapted into feature films one after another: first Street Fighter in 1994, then Mortal Kombat in 1995.

The question is, why did one work and the other didn’t?

The Structure:

The first and, I think, the most important factor is how the two films are structured, particularly with regard to their characters.

Mortal Kombat has eleven characters drawn from the first two games of the series, plus two cameos (Jax and Shao Khan). Street Fighter has fifteen characters from its game’s roster, plus one who is sort-of based on the sixteenth. On paper, that’s not a huge difference (a matter of two to five, depending on how you want to count), but consider how they are deployed.

In Mortal Kombat you have a structure that looks like this:

We have our three protagonists: hero, secondary hero, heroine. These three join forces pretty early in the film and from then on they spend almost all their non-fighting screentime together. There is a fourth hero in the form of their mentor, Raiden, and a fifth in Kitana, who is kept in the background for most of the film for plot reasons. We see almost the whole story through the eyes of those three characters. If they need to talk with someone, they talk with each other, meaning that when Johnny Cage has some dialogue, Liu and Sonya naturally get some development as well by dint of being the ones who have to react to him. The rest of the cast are aligned with the villain and serve as his henchmen or tools to challenge the heroes.

The structure is thus designed to maximize each character’s role by putting them as close to the center of the story as possible. It’s clear and easy to keep track of. Some of the characters still get marginalized, but everyone has a purpose and often more than one. You couldn’t really cut anyone, even Scorpion and Sub-Zero, without damaging the story.

On the other hand, Street Fighter’s structure looks like this:

Rather than the two camps of the other film, here we have five or six (depending on whether you want to count Dhalsim as separate from Bison). The main heroes are Guille, Chun-Li, and Ryu and Ken, but of those four only Ryu and Ken spend any degree of screen time together. Guille and Chun-Li each have their own duo of supporting characters to talk to, except that said duos are both almost completely extraneous to the story and receive little to no development, meaning that those scenes basically do nothing except to move the plot around and sort of develop the leads, but without the reinforcing feedback of working off of another relevant character. Each of the protagonists, therefore, more or less exists in their own little story independent of the others and has to develop more or less on his own. And since they only rarely interact it creates a disjointed and extremely shallow effect.

This structure is designed simply to shove as many familiar names in as possible, without necessarily providing them an actual role in the story. If Balrog, E. Honda, T. Hawk, Dee Jay, and/or Cammy were cut, nothing whatsoever would change, story-wise. The same could be said of Blanka (though he at least personalizes Guille’s motivation somewhat), Dhalsim, and Zangief.

One partial solution might have been to keep Chun-Li’s game background as an interpol agent rather than a journalist and have her partnered with Guille, allowing them to build off of each other and form a genuine relationship. That would have left no clear role for Cammy, Honda, T. Hawk, or Balrog, but, again, they don’t really have a role in the film to begin with except giving the protagonists someone to talk to, which would have been better served by having one of the other protagonists filling that role.

Another issue is how the characters are deployed in each film. In Mortal Kombat, we have eleven characters, but they’re not all present throughout the story. They are all established by about the half-hour mark, but then Goro and Reptile remain off-screen ‘in reserve’ for most of the second act while Kano, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero are eliminated one-by-one. Only once they’ve been removed from the story does Goro take an active role. Reptile, meanwhile, is established in two scenes: one where Shang gives him his assignment and one where he performs it by ambushing Liu to prevent him from making contact with Kitana. The point made (that the heroes can’t just go up to her and ask for help or vice-versa), he disappears from the film until it’s time for his fight scene. This also serves to keep Kitana largely ‘in reserve’ until close to the end, after Raiden has dropped out.

This makes sense given the nature of the story and characters: it’s a tournament, so characters will be eliminated and other characters will be waiting until they’re ‘called up.’ This keeps the active cast to a manageable level, even when there are actually a fairly large number of characters in the film, because at any given time we only have about five or six whose actions we have to keep track of.

On the other hand, in Street Fighter, every character is active and ‘on the board’ at all times in the story, meaning that the audience has to keep track of what every one of the fifteen characters is doing. They are all established as quickly as possible and then by and large just sit around contributing nothing for the rest of the screen time until it’s time for one of them to punch out a random goon, like freeloaders camped out on the couch. The result is an inescapable impression of empty bloat.

Again, a solution might have been to simply have some of the characters come and go throughout the film: have them fill temporary roles and then drop out of the story once the role is completed to make way for another character. So, you could have T. Hawk play a role in the beginning, get killed off or invalided out and replace him with Balrog (or something).

The Plots:

Mortal Kombat kept to a very simple, straightforward plot based on a venerable movie template that fit closely with what story the game had. In this case, it’s Enter the Dragon with fantasy elements: there’s a martial arts tournament that will decide whether an evil emperor from a dimension of magic will be allowed to invade the Earth. The premise is goofy, but imaginative and makes a certain intuitive sense (evoking the idea of trial by combat). Each character has a clear, simple reason for being there and taking part in the plot. Most importantly, it’s easy to grasp and to follow and it provides for a lot of martial arts duels.

Street Fighter took on a much more convoluted plot featuring a civil war against a power-mad dictator in a fictional country that superficially resembles Vietnam. There’s a hostage plot that doesn’t really affect anything except to provide a ticking clock (except that all the characters are already motivated to go after Bison, so…what was the point?), a plotline of Bison wanting to create an army of super-soldiers, which sort-of personalizes the battle for Guille, but otherwise only exists to create Blanka (and again unnecessary since Guille’s already motivated to go after Bison), a plot of Ryu and Ken going undercover with a local crime lord to try to find Bison’s hideout, and a plot of Chun-Li trying to get revenge on Bison for her father’s death. Of these the only ones that really tie together are the Guille’s and Ryu and Ken’s (since he’s using them to get to Bison), and none of them have much of a payoff. Chun-Li’s quest for revenge is simply forgotten about after she ambushes him and gets re-captured. The hostage plot again, doesn’t actually affect anything one way or another, and Blanka doesn’t do anything except electrocute one guard and look sad before apparently dying (why not have him join the fight against Bison to save Guille from the villain’s sudden-onset superpowers?).

At any point it isn’t really clear just what Bison’s resources and capabilities are: we’re told he has high-tech weapons that he uses to make up for his comparatively few troops, but we never see them. He has a bunch of faceless henchmen, but then so does Sagat. It isn’t clear why Guille needs Ryu and Ken at all, and the plot as a whole has very little weight to it.

The Characters:

Mortal Kombat had eleven characters to adapt: the seven playable characters of the first game, the two boss characters, one hidden character, and one character from the sequel. They solved this by choosing to focus on the three most heroic, relatable characters as their three protagonists, casting another character in a mentor role (which simultaneously serves to temper what should be his overwhelming power), and working the remaining three in as supporting antagonists to allow for the kind of duels one would see in the game. The two boss characters of course play the main antagonist roles, while the remaining two – Kitanna and Reptile – are worked together as a potential ally to the heroes and the monster assigned to guard her, respectively. You also have one more character – Jax – in a cameo role, and another – Shao Khan – as an unseen presence and then as the ‘stinger’ to end the film. This meant that some of the characters – especially Scorpion and Sub-Zero – got far reduced roles, but it gave more time to focus on the three leads and the plot with the villain.

Street Fighter had fifteen characters to adapt, since the studio insisted on including the enitrety of the game’s large cast. Trouble was that, as noted, the film’s framework didn’t intuitively allow for that many characters, so they were squeezed in to whatever roles there were or could be made for them. You have of course Guille as the hero, Bison as the villain, and Chun-Li as the heroine. So far so good. Though this leaves the two protagonists of the game, Ryu and Ken, without a place, so they become supporting characters and comic relief. Sagat as a secondary villain allied with Bison makes sense, as does having Vega as his subordinate. Likewise Zangief as Bison’s enforcer and Cammy as Guille’s second in command. But then we start running off the rails: we need an excuse for Blanka. He’ll be an abortive super-soldier experiment. That means we need a scientist, so Dhalsim becomes Dr. Dhalsim. Chun-Li’s a reporter now, so she can have a film crew. Shove E. Honda and Balrog in as her sidekicks (no, we don’t care that Balrog was a villain in the game). T. Hawk can be another soldier under Guile. And Bison needs a computer guy, so make that Dee Jay because Theo worked in Die Hard.

See, in the latter they’re pretty much just dropping names into whatever roles they have available or that they can force into the story, like they’re casting a play and need everyone to participate, while in the former, the characters all fit the story and serve it.

Ironically enough, though it follows the game much more closely, Mortal Kombat is much less dependent upon it. People can (and do) enjoy it without knowing anything about the game (I know this for a fact since I first saw it with almost no prior knowledge of the game, on the recommendation of a critic who likewise knew nothing about the source material). Street Fighter is almost wholly distinct from the game in every way, but a good chunk of its cast only exists because they were in the game. Someone who had never heard of the game would watch that movie and find himself wondering why half the cast even exists and why it makes such a point of letting us know who they are (not to mention wondering why it’s called ‘Street Fighter’).

This makes sense when you think about it: these characters were originally designed for a certain context. The closer you can stick to that context, the more sense they will make, while the further away you get, the more you have to struggle to justify them.

The Villains:

Raul Julia’s M. Bison is an over-the-top caricature of a mad dictator; truck-loads of fun to watch, but utterly unconvincing as a threat. He lets Guille bait him, gets outwitted or put on the back-foot more than once, and even his own allies and subordinates seem to regard him as little more than a lunatic most of the time. Julia was no martial artist, requiring a lot of strategic camera and editing tricks to allow him to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme, and even then he’s on the ropes for most of the fight, and that’s after he gets thoroughly trounced by the heroine half way through the film.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung is played on a more restrained, if still hammy note, conveying an air of sophistication and chess-master-like control of the situation. He rarely loses his cool, covers almost every base he can, and is convincingly dangerous throughout. He’s able to get away with taunting a god and successfully outwits and manipulates the heroes on more than one occasion. His underlings, even the monstrous Goro, treat him with fearful respect. Tagawa is fairly big and well-muscled, and he’s skilled enough to go toe-to-toe with Robin Shou in the climax with some very fast and fluid martial arts. Before that it’s made very clear that none of the others have a chance against him, and he in fact tries to take advantage of this by challenging first Sonya and then Johnny to the final bout.

Their introductions provide an illustrative point of contrast. Both villains are introduced killing minor characters: Bison takes out two random soldiers in a stiff, blatantly staged manner, snapping their necks in two moves (though accompanied by the great line, “You came across the world to fight me, soldier. Now is your chance!”). He then sees Guille on a news broadcast giving him an off-color hand gesture and is infuriated into challenging him directly.

Shang has a nightmare fight with Liu Kang’s brother, delivering smooth blocks and bone-breaking blows to illustrate his legitimate skill and power (as well as being more emotionally effective – seeing a young man being beaten to death while calling for his brother, instead of two randos dying with little fanfare – despite the hammy acting). He then tells Liu “Your brother’s soul is mine! You will be next!” before transforming into a skull and ending the dream.

The Bison scene is fine in concept as a way to establish his ruthlessness and physical prowess as well as to set up the conflict between the hero and villain. Though it falls apart in the execution and again, I don’t like that he lets himself be rattled so easily. And the interaction between Bison and Guille is both unnecessary (Guille’s whole mission is to fight Bison and so he is already motivated to take him down) and ridiculous (that Bison can somehow talk to him through a television camera).

The Shang scene is cheesy, but effective, again establishing the villain as a dangerous and brutal opponent, while also setting the hero’s motivation, as well as suggesting right at the beginning of the film that Liu doesn’t really believe he can defeat Shang, as shown by Shang turning into a skull right after promising to take his soul. So, right there we have “the hero must fight the villain, but he doubts he can triumph.”

Even apart from the execution (for all his acting talent, there was no way Raul Julia would be as convincingly dangerous a fighter as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Street Fighter scene makes Guille and Bison equals at best: Guille can rile Bison, and Bison can taunt him right back (I really wanted to find something that rhymed with ‘Bison’ there). Guille clearly isn’t the least bit intimidated by Bison, which means there’s no tension regarding the outcome of their battle. The Mortal Kombat scene portrays Shang Tsung as literally Liu Kang’s worst nightmare, to the point that he sees him as his own death incarnate.

The former tries to establish the credentials of both the hero and the villain at the same time. The problem with this is that it means the villain can’t be allowed to overshadow the hero, so we aren’t really worried about whether the hero can prevail. The latter focuses entirely on establishing the villain as a dangerous threat and setting up the hero’s motivation, trusting that a). they have the whole rest of the film to establish Liu’s badass credentials and b). the audience will naturally assume he’s a badass once they see him (writing short-hand again: “you know you’re watching a martial arts film. Here’s a handsome, muscular young Asian guy. You can do the math”).

The Action:

Both films are based on fighting games, but as noted, Street Fighter has very little fighting in it: the action is mostly fairly generic, underwhelming gun fights, explosions, and standard war / action movie fare. What fights it does have are mostly filmed in quick close-ups (partially to disguise the lack of training in key cast members – most notably Raul Julia – and partly because the film’s chaotic schedule meant that many of them had to be improvised or choreographed on the fly).

Mortal Kombat has quite a few showpiece fight scenes, including a sequence of four or five in a row mid-way through the film. The fights are mostly filmed in fairly lengthy long-shots interspersed with close-ups, allowing us to clearly see the actors performing extended sets of fast and fluid martial arts. Most of the cast are trained martial artists of one description or another, and it’s clear the fights were a high priority for the filmmakers (the release date was actually pushed back to allow new fight scenes to be filmed when test audiences didn’t think there was enough of it).

(The one exception, as noted, is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya, whose few fight scenes are filmed more in quick individual cuts, where they filmed her doing one or two moves at a time and edited them together. By contrast, almost every fight in Street Fighter, including every fight involving the main villain, is done this way. What is a sparingly-used expedient in one film is the norm in the other).

The result is that Street Fighter’s action is mostly forgettable boilerplate stuff when it isn’t laughable (e.g. trying to pass off the ravaged Raul Julia as a master fighter on par with Van Damme). There are a small handful of decent fights, but all pretty short and not filmed particularly well. Mortal Kombat boasts some really solid and excellently filmed martial arts, as well as having much more of a distinct ‘style’ to its action scenes.

(As a point of contrast: Guile and co spend as much time running around with guns as they do engaging in martial arts. Sonya’s the only one who uses a firearm in her film, and her gun gets almost contemptuously destroyed as soon as the main plot gets going, leaving bare hands and simple weapons the only recourse for the rest of the movie).

The Behind-The-Scenes:

There are also some interesting points of similarity and contrast in how their respective studios and filmmakers approached the movies, and how the shoots went. A few of which include:

  • Both films had fledgling directors, though Stephen de Souza had worked in the industry and built up a stronger track record than Paul Anderson at that point. De Souza had written some of the biggest action hits of the past decade (this is one of the guys who wrote Die Hard, for goodness sakes!). Anderson had only made a low-budget crime film.

De Souza explicitly had no interest in making a martial arts or tournament film, instead opting to base his script off of a storyline he had seen being considered at Capcom for future entries, involving M. Bison as a dictator trying to take over the world. He figured he could re-cast the game’s colorful lineup of characters into an original action-sci-fi film, rather than a straightforward adaptation of the game.

De Souza wanted only seven characters, and initially Capcom agreed (persuaded by his argument that audiences can only really follow seven characters at a time). But then, as pre-production went on, Capcom kept insisting he add more characters to the cast. Then more. Then more. Until by the end he had exactly the problem he had warned them about.

Mortal Kombat had at its helm not just Paul Anderson, but more importantly producer Lawrence Kasanoff. Kasanoff, upon discovering the Mortal Kombat arcade game, immediately saw the potential in the premise. The blend of martial arts and weird fantasy, he thought, was potentially a billion dollar franchise, extending to movies, books, TV, anything you cared to name. Kasanoff fought hard to get the film made and enthusiastically promoted it all the way, keeping in close touch with Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator (and voice of Scorpion in the movie) to make sure they were matching the spirit of the game.

In short, the people behind Mortal Kombat really believed in the potential of the property and meant to translate it to the screen. The people behind Street Fighter saw it more as a jumping-off point for an idea they thought would be more interesting.

  • Ironically, Universal and Capcom loved Street Fighter and were very enthusiastic about it, while New Line frankly hated Mortal Kombat and had very little faith in it (Kasanoff tells a story of the studio head yelling at him for an hour about how much he hated the script before concluding “go ahead and make it”). This actually might have helped things, as Kombat didn’t have the problem of the studio trying to force changes upon the production (other than the PG-13 rating) or demanding an early release date. Street Fighter was forced into a rushed production to be in theaters by Christmas in order to push the merchandise that had been enthusiastically churned out for it, no doubt exasperating the films myriad other problems. Studio enthusiasm isn’t always a positive.
  • Much of Street Fighter’s $35 million budget went to hiring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julie (Van Damme alone cost $8 million: over a fifth of the film’s entire budget!). Van Damme, then at the height of his stardom, addicted to cocaine, and coming off of a very bitter divorce, was by all accounts a nightmare to work with, refusing to rehearse, showing up late to the set (if he showed up at all), and being an absolute diva when he did. This on top of demanding an expensive private hotel room for his own use (Julia on the other hand was a consummate professional respected by everyone on the set and often accompanied by his children).

Mortal Kombat had a budget of $20 million, part of which went to hiring veteran star Christopher Lambert. Money was so tight that they originally thought that they’d only be able to use him for a few days of shooting on an LA soundstage and resort to long-distance body doubles for the Thailand shoot. Lambert, however, liked the role and wanted the film to succeed, so he volunteered to pay his own expenses to come down to Thailand and film more scenes. There he helped keep the production going smoothly with his laid-back, helpful, professional attitude, setting the tone for everyone else (he also proved himself an absolute mensch by buying a wrap party for the cast and crew out of his own pocket when filming concluded with nothing left in the budget).

  • As noted, Moral Kombat cost $15 million less than Street Fighter. Yet they clearly spent the money much more wisely, focusing on the elaborate sets and any necessary special effects (e.g. Goro) over hiring big name actors. The cast was mostly relative unknowns, with veterans Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa filling in the heavy lifting. Some characters were simply played by stuntmen since they wouldn’t have any lines anyway.

Street Fighter spent a good chunk of its budget on its somewhat-bizarrely strong cast: in addition to Van Damme and Julia, we have veteran dramatic actors like Wes Studi, Roshan Seth, and Grand L. Bush, not to mention Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue (who, incidentally, was very well liked by the rest of the cast for her sweet, professional behavior on set and supportive attitude off it). Since the film also included a lot of extras, numerous locations, and a fair number of special effects and explosions, the remaining budget ended up being noticeably stretched thin, with the result that the film looks considerably cheaper than Mortal Kombat, despite costing almost twice as much.

The short version of all this, it seems to me, is that Mortal Kombat is a much more focused film: the filmmakers knew what they were aiming to achieve, knew what the particular appeal of the film would be, knew the effect they were trying to create. They concentrated all their effort on the things that would contribute to that effect and tailored the story and characters to the film they meant to make.

Street Fighter seems to have been cobbled together from multiple conflicting visions, not only different ideas of what would happen in the film, but even what kind of film they were making. The most basic elements – the fighting and characters – are mostly done half-heartedly in favor of large dollops of shallow plotlines and out-of-place action scenes. Half the crew seems under the impression they’re making a comedy (e.g. the goofy reactions to the impending truck bomb), the other half thinks they’re making a serious action movie (e.g. Guille contemplating the home videos of his friend, Blanka).

Kombat succeeded on a combination of faith in the material, solid writing, a wisely-spent budget, a cooperative cast, and a clear sense of priority. Fighter failed on a blend of doubt in the material, weak, haphazard writing, a poorly spent budget, a chaotic shoot on a hard deadline, and a general failure to prioritize.

Some of these things are just a matter of bad luck (it would have been hard to predict Van Damme’s absurd diva behavior for instance), but there are a lot of things here for those who are writers to try to keep in mind: understand what you are trying to achieve and what i necessary to create that effect (and what isn’t: do you really need a first-class dramatic actor as the generic scientist in an action movie based on a fighting game?). Consider the structure of the story and character interactions and whether it uses them efficiently. Keep an eye on what each scene is doing and what it says about each character (e.g. is a character who is supposed to be intimidating being undermined?). Ask what role each character plays and whether the story really needs them, or needs them to be present at the moment. Ask how many characters the audience has to keep track of at each given moment and whether there is a way to shuffle them around to keep the active cast down to a manageable level.

And above all else: have faith in the material you’re working with and commit to it.

Thought of the Day: Blaming Audiences

I notice that audiences always seem to get blamed for Hollywood’s attitudes: people say things like “audiences wouldn’t have accepted an actor like this in a lead role before such-and-such, but the country was more mature now.” I remember seeing a clip from a Film Noir documentary where someone was saying: “The Bogarts and the Alan Ladds and so on would never have been accepted as leading men by audiences prior to World War II, but the country pretty much grew up during the war.”

Except (ignoring the patronizing attitude) no one tried casting people like Bogart, Ladd, etc. in lead roles before then. It was Hollywood that judged them to be secondary players at best, not the country as a whole. So who can say whether audiences would or would not have accepted them in such a position? The fact that audiences took to them at once when given the chance implies that they might have been just as successful before the war.

Now, maybe audiences wouldn’t have accepted someone like Bogart as a leading man in the 1930s, or maybe they wouldn’t have gone to see a Charlie Chan film starring an actual Chinese man. But the thing is, we can’t say that for sure because no one tried it. And no one tried it because the filmmakers thought it wouldn’t work or were against the idea.

We see this all the time: filmmakers will preen themselves over having ‘the first Black-led superhero film’ or ‘the first female-led superhero film’ or say things like ‘audiences are finally ready for an Asian-led blockbuster’, apparently forgetting that they and not the audiences were the ones in control of whether such films would be made all along.

(Of course, these days when there are very few such ‘firsts’ left available, this sort of thing is even more obnoxious, but that’s another story).

Audiences, by and large, don’t much care, and I frankly don’t think they ever did. It’s Hollywood that worries about that sort of thing, because apparently in all this time they haven’t figured out that all people really want is a good story told well by talented and / or charismatic performers.

Kaiju Appreciation: Sanda & Gaira

For those who don’t know, one of my hobbies is editing together music videos, particularly ones celebrating the various Godzilla and other Toho characters. My latest one (first in nearly a year for one reason or another) is for Sanda & Gaira, the gargantua brothers from War of the Gargantuas.

For those unfamiliar with Kaiju eiga, War of the Gargantuas is a loose sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World and tells the story of two giants or ‘gargantuas’ that grew from pieces cast off of the regenerating Frankenstein monster from that film. One, Sanda (the brown gargantua), was raised by humans who loved and cared for him, the other, Gaira (the green one) grew up alone in the sea. Now fully grown, Gaira is a savage monster who preys upon people (spitting out their clothing), but when the military traps and nearly kills him, Sanda appears to rescue his brother and care for him. Only, when Sanda discovers his brother’s murderous appetites, he tries to beat the habit out of him, prompting a war between them.

This is really one of the best kaiju films of Toho’s classic era. It’s a good story based on a creative premise, and there’s a lot of real pathos in the relationship between the two monsters, where Sanda genuinely cares for Gaira and keeps trying to reach out to him even well into their fight, but Gaira is having none of it. But you can’t help feeling bad for him nonetheless, because Gaira clearly doesn’t have the capacity to understand the idea that Sanda can love him and still chastise him, making their showdown a full-blown tragedy (most of the best monster films are tragedies at heart).

Haruo Nakajima, best known for playing Godzilla in the first twelve films of the series, here assails Gaira. He called this his favorite non-Godzilla role by far, since the costumes left the actor’s eyes exposed, allowing for much greater emoting. I imagine the lighter costume and greater scope to show his athleticism also helped.

Anyway, for this appreciation I went with the song “How Can I Live” by Ill Nino, which seemed to fit the tragic, yet violent tone of the film (it’s the song that played during the credits of Freddy vs. Jason, though I actually first discovered it in a now-long-lost video tribute to…War of the Gargantuas!).

Enjoy

Thoughts on ‘Mortal Kombat'(1995)

Video Game movies seem to be going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment. Which is rather ironic, given the state of the film industry in general.

2019 gave us Detective Pikachu, a light-hearted, fun, and generally well-received take on one of the biggest gaming franchises out there, being essentially a family adventure-comedy that happens to be set in the Pokemon world. 2020 saw Sonic the Hedgehog, another light-hearted, easy-going family film buoyed along by massive amounts of good-will and a hamtastically delightful turn by Jim Carrey. And just recently we had the new Mortal Kombat, which I haven’t seen (and don’t really have much interest in from what I’ve heard), but which I think is probably not a light-hearted family film. In any case, it seems to have done pretty well at the box-office last I heard.

As such, it seems a good time to revisit a couple of the major early efforts at adapting video games to the screen, back when the medium itself was, it not in its infancy, at the very least in its childhood. We’re going to look at one that I think works and one that doesn’t and then compare and contrast.

And we’re going to start with the one that works: what was, for a very long time (as in, probably up until 2019), considered the best of the bunch.

MORTAL KOMBAT!

For the proper effect, listen to the theme song.

We open in spectacular fashion with the rousing cry of “MORTAL KOMBAT!” accompanied by the driving techno theme song as the credits play over flames shooting out of a giant version of the dragon logo. This pretty much lets you know right away what kind of film you’re in for.

From there we swiftly (as in, over the course of less than five minutes) meet our three protagonists and learn their motivations. First there is Liu Kang, a Shaolin monk who ran away to America to escape his supposed destiny, but who is summoned home when his brother is killed by the kung-fu sorcerer Shang Tsung (who has the power to steal the souls of the people he kills). Then there’s Sonya Blade, a badass, self-reliant cop on the trail of the slimy underworld boss Kano, who murdered her partner (and who is in league with Shang). Finally there’s Johnny Cage, an egotistical Hollywood action star whose martial arts skills are derided as fake by the press and who secretly fears this might be true.

All three eventually meet up on a boat bound for Shang Tsung’s island, where they will partake in the mystical tournament of Mortal Kombat. They get a taste of the kind of opposition they can expect when they come face-to-face with two of Shang’s enslaved champions: Scorpion and Sub-Zero, both of whom wield supernatural powers (Sub-Zero demonstrates his cryomancy by destroying Sonya’s pistol, swiftly removing any firearms from the film).

The rules are then laid out for them by Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning and protector of Earth. Mortal Kombat isn’t just any martial arts tournament: it is part of a mystical ritual that, if completed, would give Shang’s master, the Emperor of Outworld, the right to invade and conquer earth. For one realm to win the right to attack another, their champions must win ten Mortal Kombat tournaments in a row. And Shang’s champions have won nine so far.

Upon arriving on the island, our three heroes uncover more of the plot, including the fact that Shang is seeking to manipulate them for his own purposes, and that they may have another ally in the form of Princess Kitana, rightful heir to the throne of Outworld. Also that Shang’s ace-in-the-hole is an eight-foot, four-armed monster named Goro.

From there the tournament begins in earnest, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance and Shang and Raiden each trying to guide our heroes into their preferred outcome.

I think if I were to sum up the movie, I would call it “if Bruce Lee and Ray Harryhausen did a film together.” It’s Enter the Dragon with a fantasy twist.

Upon re-watching this film for the first time in years for this review, I was rather surprised to find just how good it really is. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great film by any means, and there are many elements that could be picked apart. But it is a good film, given what it is, with many very real strengths, some remarkably solid, even excellent storytelling touches, and, most importantly, it’s fun.

In the first place, as noted above, the film wastes no time at all. We meet our three protagonists, two of the antagonists, and get an idea of their motives and personalities within the first five minutes. Liu wakes up from a nightmare of his brother being killed at the Shaolin temple to find himself amid the trappings of a normal American life and reads a telegram summoning him home. That right there, in almost no dialogue, establishes a fundamentally conflicted nature as well as setting his motives. Sonya is found snapping orders at her subordinates, dismissing the idea of trust, and butting dancers in the head with her shotgun as she makes her way through a crowded nightclub in pursuit of Kano, establishing a single-minded, self-reliant character who doesn’t play well with others. Johnny’s introduction has him taking on a bunch of thugs…only for one of them to miss his cue and expose the flashy martial arts we just witnessed as nothing but a show, which prompts Johnny to storm off the set in anger. We thus have a perfect illustration of both his self-absorbed personality and his doubts regarding the reality of his talent.

(Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage is really the stand-out among the three leads, acting wise, by the way. He gets most of the best lines – partly ad-libbed – while also employing some strong, simple emoting to convey his character. I especially like the immediate affection and respect that comes into his face when he meets his old instructor, or the drop of his eyes as he comments on the press deriding him as a fake).

All this requires a good deal of writing short-hand. Most of the plot points and characterization are things we’ve seen in other films, so the movies takes advantage of this to get things moving quickly. For instance, a modern film would likely have a whole scene of Johnny trying to defend his skills to the press and being challenged on it. Here the point is established in a throwaway line, followed by seeing the amusingly on-the-nose “Johnny Cage a Fake!” headline, leading directly to a discussion of the tournament with his old instructor (all while giving Johnny a chance to both crack-wise and show his sincere side). No time is lost and vital plot and character points are established swiftly and smoothly, often two or three at a time. Johnny’s a superficially flashy actor who secretly wonders if he has any legitimate talent: we’ve seen this sort of thing dozens of times before, so the movie can trust us to ‘get it’ right away and move on.

The plotting is remarkably solid as well. Of the three, Liu knows more or less the truth about the tournament, though he’s become a skeptic and only gets involved for personal reasons (amusingly shown when he announces his intention to avenge his brother and then adds with a touch of sarcasm, “Oh, yes, I forgot. We’re fighting for the fate of the world!”). Johnny is only told that it’s a great martial arts tournament and a chance to test his skills against the best of the best, and Sonya is tricked into going without intending to compete at all. Thus each one is there for a reason that fits with their characters and motivations without having to clutter up the narrative (e.g. Sonya clearly wouldn’t be interested in going to a martial arts tournament for its own sake and Johnny isn’t the type to volunteer to defend the world). Not to mention that it gives an excuse for any necessary expository dialogue as the characters in the know – Liu and Raiden – have to explain things to the characters who aren’t.

This also helps prevent matters from seeming contrived or repetitive and to give each character their own motive and plot-line. Then, when the characters do things, even seemingly foolish things, there’s always a reason for it. They never just do something stupid to move the plot along; all their actions follow their characters and motivations.

For instance, after Shang welcomes the fighters to the island, Sonya follows him into inner recesses of the palace (as she knows he has information on Kano). Liu goes with her, since he wants to fight and kill Shang to avenge his brother. And Johnny goes with them because he’s interested in Sonya (“You know, you have to admire her. When she sets her mind on something…” “It’s not her mind you’re admiring.” “…It’s true.”).

Basically, the characters aren’t stupid, and that includes the villain. Shang Tsung is legitimately cunning and avoids many of the standard ‘evil overlord’ tropes. Much of his plot involves trying to subtly rig the tournament so that he won’t have to fight Liu Kang – the one supposedly chosen by destiny to save the world – in the final battle, but instead be able to take on one of the other two, who would be far easier targets. He is confident in his own ability to win regardless, but he’s not fighting for his own ego. His goal is simply to win the tournament for his master, so he’s going to do anything he can to make that easier and safer for himself without actually cheating (he also has a slimy interest in Sonya, but again, he works that in to his greater goal). Really, how many bad guys show this kind of focus and pragmatism?

His manipulations are themselves pretty clever, with multiple contingencies to ensure his preferred outcome. In the ordinary course of the tournament, he’ll let his fighters try to win. If they start to lose, he’ll send out the four-armed giant Goro to dominate the mortals. When Johnny requests a duel with Goro, Shang turns it to an opportunity to select his own challenger for the final match (this despite the fact that everyone fully expects Johnny to lose). He also knows that Kitana is a dangerous potential ally to the heroes and so assigns Reptile to be her chaperone (forcing her to make contact with Liu by challenging him to a fight and delivering cryptic advice, which has to be cryptic since Shang is watching them).

In short, the film shows Shang covering his bases and not just assuming that his plan will succeed or barreling forward out of sheer pride. He’s convincingly portrayed as an intelligent villain whose evil scheme fails primarily because the heroes were brave and skilled enough to triumph over it in spite of his planning rather than because of his own stupidity or arrogance.

Speaking of which, the film does a good job of laying out the rules by simply having the characters ask Raiden about them: obvious questions from characters trying to get a grasp on the situation like “so why doesn’t Outworld just invade Earth?” “What about the other fighters on the boat?” and so on. The stakes are established early on and then reinforced near the end when we see Outworld and learn its history, illustrating the fate that awaits Earth if the heroes fail.

(At the same time, the movie wisely doesn’t over explain things and leaves a lot of what we see a mystery. Why can Sub-Zero freeze people? Just what the heck is Scorpion? What’s the deal with those weird cruciform statues in Outworld and why does Reptile become a human ninja when he’s pulled into one? Briefly, because this isn’t the world we know. Enough is explained to know the gist of what’s happening, but both we and the characters are in uncharted territory where everything is strange and it isn’t clear what is and is not possible anymore. At one point Liu faces off with a seemingly ordinary opponent, and then the man suddenly growls like a lion at him. It’s never explained or even comes up in dialogue, it’s just a reminder that – as indicated by Sonya’s spinning compass – we’re off the edge of the map here.)

Another clever bit of exposition comes after Shang Tsungs’s champions threaten the heroes before the start of the tournament. Raiden steps in with a rare showing of anger, hurling the bad guys about with his lightning and chewing Shang out for violating the rules. Shang apologizes and then ‘helpfully’ reminds Raiden that things will be different once they reach Shang’s island. This lets us know that Raiden won’t be able to just zap the bad guys for us and smoothly justifies providing the information by the sorcerer clearly meaning it as a subtle dig against the deity (“My domains are well known to me, sorcerer!”).

On that note, Christopher Lambert’s Raiden is one of the most delightful aspects of the movie. The biggest name actor in the cast, he’s very clearly having a blast playing the larger-than-life thunder god, disappearing into his role as a smooth, supremely self-assured, yet somewhat playful character. But it isn’t just his charisma and enthusiasm that makes the role, but also the fact that he manages to convey a distinctly non-human perspective (something honestly rare amid movie deities).

One the best moments of the film comes when he solemnly informs the heroes: “The fate of billions will depend upon you,” and then bursts into a delighted laugh before catching himself and apologizing with a shrug. That tells us pretty clearly what we’re dealing with here: Raiden is legitimately on the side of the angels, but he’s chiefly hoping the mortals will at least put on a good show (besides which, whatever happens it’s not his neck on the line). Throughout the film he approaches them with a gently patronizing, somewhat sarcastic attitude, as if they were precocious children, yet always while doing what he can to help them along without either violating the rules or making things too dull.

There’s another good moment when he chastises Johnny for challenging Goro and Johnny pushes back by reminding him that it’s Mortal Kombat and therefore up for them to decide how to fight it. Rather than getting angry or standing on his dignity, Raiden is delighted that, “at last one of them has understood.”

I also love the faux-politeness Shang shows to Raiden whenever they share a scene, bowing when he enters and maintaining an even, almost reverent tone when he addresses him, though one dripping with barely-veiled sarcasm (“You grace us with your…presence”). It’s a great touch: acknowledging that, though they are in opposing camps, Raiden is nevertheless of a much higher status than Shang and the sorcerer knows it. Again, it’s not a huge deal, but it’s something they bothered to think about and to get right.

It’s these little details that I think really show the passion and care on the part of the filmmakers. Another is the way Shang bows. The traditional Kung Fu salute is a palm-over-fist pose that (I am told) symbolizes ‘peace over power’. Shang bows fist-over-palm, indicating ‘power over peace.’ No one ever draws attention to this in the movie, and most viewers won’t even notice it, but it’s something that the filmmakers or possibly the actor came up with and included as a bit of visual characterization.

Again, much credit to veteran actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung, who like Lambert (and really everyone for that matter) is obviously having a great time in the role and who invests the character with a tremendous amount of life and personality. He does a marvelous trick where, for most of the movie, he keeps a fairly stoical expression, but with enough small variations to convey the actual emotion behind it as effectively as if he’d been broadly mugging to the camera. Then when he does cut loose, he hams it up gloriously (“Your soul is mine!”). He is also, like most of the cast, an accomplished martial artist, allowing him to convey a convincingly intimidating air and to go into the climactic battle with gusto.

“IT HAS BEGUN!”

What about the rest of the cast?

Well, I’ll say first off that this isn’t an ‘acting’ movie. The filmmakers (wisely in my opinion) largely chose to prioritize fighting ability over histrionic power, so most of them are just adequate. Hong Kong veteran Robin Shou as Liu Kang gets the most attention and the biggest story arc, and while he doesn’t stand out acting wise, he gets plenty of good moments showing a good-natured, but defiant personality (again, I like the touch of sarcasm when he parrots the ‘official’ reason for fighting in Mortal Kombat). His interactions with Johnny are pretty fun, where Liu enjoys poking the filmstar’s ego. When he has to do heavy emoting, he’s what you might call ‘b-movie adequate:’ not great, but he gets the job done enough that you’re not pulled out of the film.

As said, , Linden Ashby is the stand out among the three protagonists as Johnny Cage. He provides most of the film’s comic relief with his ‘everyman’ perspective, frequent jokes, and occasional slapstick (such as his enormous, but ever-dwindling supply of suitcases in the early scenes). At the same time, as noted above, he gets some really quite good moments that call for actual emoting, and, refreshingly, he’s allowed to be an honest-to-goodness hero underneath his ostensibly shallow, self-absorbed exterior. I especially like the matter-of-fact chivalry he shows towards Sonya by repeatedly stepping in to defend her almost from the moment they meet (when she gives him the “I don’t need your help” line he replies “We can’t help it, it’s a guy thing”). Though he also gently mocks this trait in himself by suggesting Sonya should take point after they catch their first glimpse of Goro, preventing the touch from being too mawkish. Honestly, Johnny’s just a flat-out likable character, with a decent story arc of his own that comes to a satisfying conclusion when he takes on Goro and has to forego any ego-saving flashiness to come out on top. He also gets one of the best fights in the film in his duel with Scorpion, allowing Ashby to show his martial arts skills to the fullest.

“WELCOME!”

The main weak point in the cast is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya. Her acting is again adequate: not great, but not distracting, and the character comes across perfectly well as a self-reliant, somewhat abrasive tough girl single-mindedly focused on her goal (which makes for an amusing contrast with Johnny). No, the problem is that she’s the one non-martial artist in the main cast and it shows. This was apparently due to her being a last-minute replacement when the original actress, Cameron Diaz (!!) injured herself during training, leaving no time to bring her up to snuff.

To their credit, the filmmakers work around this as well as they can. Sonya has the fewest fights of any of the leads and they use careful staging and quick edits to make her look more skilled than she is. It works pretty well during a big group fight where the three heroes take on a gang of baddies, but her solo fight against Kano is pretty awkward (though her lack of training is most apparent when she’s tossing slow, clumsy air punches right before the match). Let no one say she wasn’t game, though: that’s really her doing all the fighting and stunts without a double (most of the actors did the majority of their own stunts and fighting, which helps immensely to sell the film).

Of course, the idea that Bridgette Wilson could defeat ex-professional-boxer Trevor Goddard is probably the least believable thing in the entire movie. Though again to their credit, they at least make a point of showing that she feels his blows a lot more than he feels hers and she finishes him with a wrestling move that could at least conceivably work in that situation (rather than pummeling him into submission or something equally ridiculous).

Looks like a fair and even fight

Kano himself is mostly just a slimy pig, but he really doesn’t need to be anything else, and Goddard’s gleefully horrible performance is a lot of fun to watch. I especially like the scene where he’s chomping down on the provided feast while chatting with an unimpressed Goro. It’s just such a ridiculous situation, and yet one that naturally might occur under those circumstances. I also like the contrast Kano, the slovenly crime boss, presents to the more dignified Outworld villains, allowing the audience to sense at once that they are on a different level of dangerous compared to a mere criminal.

By this time there had been two games in the franchise, with a third one coming out the same year as the film. The filmmakers wisely chose to focus primarily on the first game, drawing the cast almost entirely from its roster, which consisted of seven fighters, one hidden fighter (Reptile), and two boss characters. They also include Kitana and Jax from the second game (and Jax is pretty much just a cameo).

(Jax’s presence, by the way, is itself a nice touch: they needed someone for Sonya to talk to in her early scenes, so they took a character already connected with her from the games and just declared ‘this is that guy’; a nice nod to the fans and a way of saying that they were paying attention.

I was going to say that I wish they had done something similar with Art Lean, a friend of Johnny’s who gets killed by Goro…until I reviewed the line-up for the first two games and realized that there really wasn’t a suitable character to fill that role. Which also shows that they didn’t just shove a familiar name into an unsuitable position – e.g. calling him ‘Smoke’ or something – simply to be able to say they had the character).

With such a large cast to account for, however (and with a limited budget and run time), someone was going to get the short shrift, and in this case it’s Scorpion and Sub-Zero (ironically enough, given that they’ve become the faces of the franchise). Their rivalry is only obliquely alluded to, neither gets anything that could be considered characterization, and they’re pretty much just one step-up from the interchangeable faceless thugs. This could understandably annoy fans of the franchise.

Me, I more appreciate the fact that the filmmakers knew they couldn’t fit everything in and so picked their battles. Rather than overstuffing the movie with irrelevant side-plots, they focus on the three protagonists and their conflict with the villain and structured everything else around that. Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s storyline didn’t fit, so they ended up sidelined in order to streamline the film. It isn’t ideal, obviously, and I’m not sure they couldn’t have fit them in better if they had wanted to, but it seems to me an acceptable sacrifice to have a leaner, more focused story.

Their role here is to provide antagonists for the characters to face and defeat, but this is a role that these two characters (plus Reptile, whom we’ll get to in a minute) are well suited to perform due to their supernatural powers. The three heroes are all normal, well-trained humans (well, Liu shows some pseudo-supernatural moves toward the end, but nothing too crazy or out-of-the-way for a martial arts hero), so pitting them against super-human opponents ups the stakes considerably and lets us know just how far they’re out-classed.

This meant that the filmmakers sensibly didn’t bother casting actors in the roles of Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile, as only Scorpion has any dialogue at all (and that just a few disparate words, including his “GET OVER HERE!” catchphrase, all of which were dubbed by Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator) and none are ever seen outside their ninja outfits. Instead, they cast professional martial artists and stuntmen – some of whom also served as trainers the other actors – thereby shoring up the all-important fight scenes and probably saving more than a few pennies of their modest budget.

That said, I think Chris Casamassa does get some good eye takes as Scorpion, especially his creepily ambiguous twitch after Johnny destroys his harpoon.

On that subject, as an adaptation I think Mortal Kombat is really one of the best examples of how to translate something like a video game into a movie. They take the central story idea – a mystical martial arts tournament – and the core structure – fight through a series of opponents until you take on first the villain’s chief henchman and then the villain himself – and applied it to a tried and true film template – Enter the Dragon and its successors. Then when that superstructure is functional they focus on how to make the distinctive elements of the game work in the new medium, with smaller details – aesthetics, dialogue, specific moves – thrown in as a treat for the fans.

Having played the game on an emulator (well, most of it: it’s a tough game and harder on a keyboard), I found that the film managed to fit in a surprising amount from the source material. Not everything, obviously, and not perfectly, but enough to convince me that the filmmakers were invested in what they were doing.

Though there is one major element of the game that didn’t make it in: the gore. The film is rated PG-13, despite the famously over-the-top fatalities of the games. Its absence is particularly conspicuous given that this was one of the most distinctive elements of the series. This was done because most of the fans of the game were teenagers or kids at the time and so the studio wanted to make sure they would be able to come out to see it. Again, many fans might find this annoying.

That said, they do push the rating a fair bit. There’s a good deal of bone-cracks during the fights and several over-the-top deaths: Sub-Zero freezing an opponent so that he shatters into a thousand pieces, Scorpion’s fiery demise, etc. It’s toned down from the games, even at the time (they’ve gotten a lot more extreme since then to keep their reputation up), but I think the filmmakers found a good balance between following the games and working within the rating requirement. Obviously an R-rating would have been preferable (as far at matching the games is concerned), but you can understand why they went they way they did and they clearly tried to do their best in spite of it.

Of course, the most important thing in the film are the fights, and they’re pretty impressive. The film takes its time building up to them, then when the tournament begins we get three or four in a row. Most of the cast are trained martial artists and their moves are consequently crisp, fast, and well-choreographed, with plenty of flashy show moves to spice things up and judicious use of wirework (as well as some over-the-top silliness in places – especially the Reptile fight – but not as much as you might think). Credit too to director Paul W. S. Anderson for shooting the fights in a way that you can clearly see what’s happening (if only he’d remembered this when he made Alien vs. Predator), and for giving each fight its own pace and structure so that no two feel like a repeat of each other. My own favorites are Johnny’s fight with Scorpion (a lot of people consider that the best fight in the film), Liu’s climactic fight with Shang Tsung, and the early group fight. I also like Liu’s fight with Sub-Zero for the clever way he was dispatched, and Johnny’s duel with Goro, though that’s more of a character scene than a fight scene.

Round One: Fight!

Speaking of Goro, let’s talk about the special effects. They’re…a mixed bag. In fact, you have here a pretty direct compare / contrast between practical effects and CGI. On the one hand you have Reptile, realized for most of the film’s run time as a truly awful computer-generated creature, one that looks like it came out of a demo reel for the Nintendo 64. On the other you have Goro, realized in an elaborate costume and puppet. Goro doesn’t look ‘real’ as you might say – he’s clearly a puppet – but the interesting thing is that he goes down a lot easier than Reptile, and you eventually kind of just accept him as a character. This is because Goro is actually there, actually on camera and interacting with the other characters, which lends him much more life and presence than the animated creature. People have a much easier time ascribing personality to an actual physical object, however un-lifelike, than they do to something they know isn’t there at all.

This isn’t to say that practical effects are always and objectively ‘better’ than CGI, but that there is a difference between them, and it means that bad practical effects can still be charming and even functional, while bad CGI is just bad.

That said, Goro’s puppet is pretty impressive. It reminds me in some ways of the turtle costumes from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, with a similar sense of “it doesn’t look ‘real,’ but it works nonetheless.”

“I am Goro! General of the armies of Outworld and Prince of the subterranean real of Shokan!”

There are some other effects, such as Scorpion’s living ‘harpoon’ (which looks just as bad as Reptile, and frankly was an odd stylistic choice to begin with), some composite shots, and a number of electricity and freezing effects, most of which are just fine and acceptable in a cheesy kind of way. Thankfully, Reptile has the power to camouflage himself, and when he fights Liu he first turns into a human ninja through some weird fantasy magic, so he has very little screen time as a wee cg beastie.

On the other side of the equation, the sets are gorgeous. These are really a high point of the film: towering, ornate banquet halls and palace corridors lined with statues, mountain-top temples, a fire-lit cavern filled with rickety platforms lined with skeletons, an eerie, smoke-filled chamber, lush beaches, and maze-like forests. Clearly a good chunk of the film’s modest budget went to constructing or traveling to interesting environments for the fights to take place in, which I would say is money well spent. At times the movie looks like it’s set in a Weird Tales cover.

And, of course, I have to mention that famous techno-beat theme song, which opens and ends the film, as well as playing during several of the fights. It’s the absolute perfect theme for the film: driving, energetic, and with just the right amount of cheesiness.

In terms of flaws, well, there are plenty, though for my money they don’t detract much from the overall effect of the film. The sometimes wooden acting and questionable special effects have been mentioned. There are debatable issues like Raiden flat out telling the characters what their arcs are supposed to be at one point (though as he’s their mentor and they’re up against the wall, you could argue that’s what he ought to do). In the climactic battle, Shang Tsung’s “army of souls” is rather laughably shown as five or six bad guys who go down with one or two hits each, and Liu’s progression through the ‘battles of enemy, self, and deepest fear’ is rather lackluster. Also, Shang tries to trick at one point by turning into his dead brother, but he does so right in front of him, so why wouldn’t he immediately see through it (I mean, his back is turned, but still they could have staged that better)? Likewise, Johnny inexplicably just disappears from the film during the Reptile fight, despite the fact that he had been right there a second ago. You could be generous and say he was distracted by something, but they should have had a scene to at least show what he was doing all that time.

There’s a bit where Goro goes on a rampage, devastating the mortal fighters in a montage, then gets a set-piece fight where he kills Art Lean. For some reason, everyone’s shocked by Goro’s appearance, but shouldn’t they have already seen him while he was killing all those other people? It would have been better to put the fight first and the montage after.

Then there’s the fact that the theme of ‘Mortal men and women deciding their own destiny’ seems kind of at odds with Liu Kang’s status as ‘the chosen one’ or that he specifically wasn’t able to escape his destiny to fight in Mortal Kombat.

Finally, I don’t like the cliffhanger ending (I’m generally against these, and not just because it led to the infamous sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation). I always prefer to go out on a high note, and the ending doesn’t really make any sense given what’s been established.

By the way, in the aforementioned ‘Raiden tells everyone the lesson they need to learn’ scene, I rather love how Sonya’s lesson amounts to the gloriously un-PC “recognize when you’re a damsel in distress and just need to be rescued.”

As I say, Mortal Kombat was long regarded as the best video-game adaptation yet made. It was a bona-fide hit when it came out, spending three weeks at the top of the US box office. What is more, it was so well-received by fans of the games that many of its changes, story elements, and characterizations were integrated into the games themselves. For instance, Kano was originally envisioned as a Japanese or Japanese-American character. But following Trevor Goddard’s deliciously slimy depiction, he was forever after portrayed as Australian. Likewise the notion of having to win ten Mortal Kombats in a row and Johnny Cage’s romance with Sonya, among other story beats, were integrated into the mythos of the games.

Now, let’s be clear: Mortal Kombat is no one’s idea of a classic. It’s a B-Movie through and through, with everything that implies: it’s silly, cheesy, the acting is mostly only fair, the effects are often down-right bad, and there are several goofy moments or gaps in logic. But it’s a B-Movie done very well, by filmmakers who clearly cared about what they were doing and strove to make the best product they could with the limited resources at their command. Most importantly, it’s just a very enjoyable, simple little film. It knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to do and puts in the effort to make it happen, and it’s done with a degree of competence and creative energy that many more prestigious films would envy.

“MORTAL KOMBAT!”

Friday Flotsam: Rights, Duties, and Cruella de Vil

1. Regarding gun control, my judgment is this: a man has a duty to defend his home, family, and community. He cannot do this unless he is able to bear arms. Since ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, he therefore has the right to bear arms.

No amount of statistics, no amount of misuse of this right abrogates it. If anything, if society is in such a state that a large chunk of it is too unstable or immoral to be trusted with firearms, that only makes it more necessary for the common man to own them, because then the duty to defend his home etc. becomes more acute.

2. This is a fundamental principle: that rights are the corollary of responsibilities / duties, which are consequences of relationships. Again, ‘ought’ implies ‘can’: if a man ‘ought’ to defend his family, then he necessary has the right to acquire, keep, and bear the means to do so.

Likewise a parent ‘ought’ to care for his child’s health. Which means he has the right to decide what medical procedures the child will and will not receive based on his own judgment. In other words, whether the horror stories of vaccine side effects are true or whether they are the wildest National Enquirer style nonsense is completely irrelevant to the question of whether anyone should be legally required to have their child vaccinated or be vaccinated himself. The important point is that it is the parents’ responsibility to care for their children’s health. If the state compels them to do something that, in their judgment, would be unhealthy, then the state is compelling them to act contrary to their responsibility to their children, which is unacceptable.

If the state is wrong in such a case, the state is not going to bear the consequences. The state is not going to be held responsible for the child’s health. The parents are. There is a disconnect between who makes the decisions and who bears the responsibility, which is to say a false-to-reality situation.

3. The same is true when it comes to non-discrimination laws. Again, the business owner is the one responsible for the management of his own property, and he is the one who will bear any consequences of mismanagement. But now the state tells him which judgments he makes in that capacity are and are not acceptable and which factors he can and cannot take into account.

Basically, they require him to act against his own judgment if his judgment fails to meet what they deem to be acceptable conclusions. Again, the point is not whether his judgment is correct, it’s that he can be forced to act against it in the case of his own responsibilities, despite the fact that he will be the one to suffer any consequences.

4. Fundamentally, this is a matter of thinking in terms of relations and the consequent duties first and drawing rights as a conclusion of those terms. If a man has children, he has a duty to raise and care for those children because they are his. As a simple matter of fact, he brought them into the world and he stands in this particular relation to them, which imposes certain responsibilities. Now, if a man has a responsibility to instruct his children (which he certainly does), then he must have the right to do so; to educate them himself if he so chooses or to select what he judges to be the best school to send them to. ‘Ought’ implies ‘can’.

By contrast, our normal way of thinking seems to me to start with certain presumed rights and then to penalize any impositions upon them. I could be wrong (I need to re-visit the Federalist Papers and other related documents), but I have never once heard a clear or objective means of determining what is and is not a ‘right’ under this system.

5. It occurs to me that this dichotomy is similar to what I understand of the pre and post-Enlightenment approach to philosophy / science. The pre-Enlightenment understanding was that we acquire knowledge so as to conform ourselves to the truth. The post-Enlightenment techno-scientific mindset is more that we acquire knowledge so as to conform the world to our desires.

The idea of rights as corollaries of duties versus fundamental rights seems to me to follow the same dichotomy; the difference of finding and conforming one’s proper place in the world and of conforming the world to oneself.

As I say, my knowledge of all this is pretty superficial right now, so I may be misreading it entirely, but so far as I can tell it seems to fit.

6. On a different note, I had to laugh out loud when I learned that Cruella literally posits that Cruella de Vil’s tragic backstory is that dalmatians killed her mother. I mean, that’s the sort of thing you joke about, not something that any sane writer would offer as a genuine story. Heck, giving a tragic backstory to Cruella de Vil, of all characters, is itself the sort of thing that no one should ever have taken seriously in the first place. Yet here we are. Someone wrote that, someone filmed that, someone put that into a multimilllion-dollar movie.

Seriously, this is not a deep or tragic character: she’s just a grouchy rich lady who wants a fur coat. That’s all she ever needs or ought to be. We all know or know of people like Cruella: she’s an absolutely perfect caricature of the bad-tempered, self-absorbed, spoiled rich woman who is too used to getting her own way to endure any kind of challenge or check. She comes onto the screen as complete as she could possibly be and nothing more needs to be said.

That right there is a more substantial, interesting, and striking figure than your stupid paint-by-numbers ‘conflicted and driven to evil’ supposedly-nuanced character going through the motions of a tragic backstory. This is shown by the fact that people still remember the original character, talk about her, and make stupid, bloated movies about her sixty years after her debut, while probably no one will remember your ‘strong and layered female protagonist version’ by this time next year.

Characterization complete

Though really, it’s almost silly to criticize modern Disney at this point, as they enthusiastically devour their own flesh to stave off the inevitable moment of starvation.

(Late) Early Thoughts on ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’

As I mentioned a couple Friday Flotsams ago, I got out to see Godzilla vs. Kong: first time back in a theater for a long time. I have to delve into full spoilers in order to discuss my thoughts, so fair warning now. If you haven’t seen it an have any interest in doing so, I’ll just say that I liked it a lot, despite it being utterly ridiculous and abounding in stupidity. I am also very glad I got to see it without any (or many) spoilers, for reasons that will become apparent.

That out of the way:

The plot is that some years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla suddenly begins making raids on coastal cities, targeting facilities of the ‘Apex’ corporation: a cybernetics company. With Godzilla seemingly turning hostile, public opinion swerves against him.

Meanwhile, Skull Island has become completely consumed by the surrounding storm, rendering it uninhabitable and wiping out most of the native life, including the people except for one little girl (I have to say: having been irritated by the utopian colonial-penance figures in Kong: Skull Island I was rather darkly amused to learn they had all been killed off by natural forces). Kong himself is kept alive inside an enormous containment dome that preserves part of the jungle, though he’s growing restless and has become too large for the environment to sustain him.

(This film takes its predecessor’s trend of creating absurdly enormous and expensive devices and cranks it up beyond infinity, by the way. Who the heck approve funding for the miles-wide biodome with holographic technology to preserve the giant ape on an isolated, extremely hostile island? “Well, we can either give every American a complete income tax refund for the next few years or keep the giant gorilla alive.” “Let’s do that one”).

Kong’s chief researcher recognizes that Kong can’t survive here, but fears that if they try to move him it will provoke Godzilla, who won’t tolerate another Alpha kaiju in his territory.

Through some manipulation by the Apex corporation (which has its own agenda), an apparent old flame of hers convinces her to bring Kong to Antarctica, where there’s an entrance to the hollow earth (there’s some ridiculous nonsense about ‘bio-memories’ where creatures naturally want to return to where their species originated. I mean, even by the goofy standards of the science in the Monsterverse, that’s another level. Though, in the film’s defense, it doesn’t work in the event).

In any case, Kong is sedated, loaded onto a barge, and shipped to Antarctica, putting him on a collision course with an already-angered Godzilla.

Meanwhile, Maddy Russell from King of the Monsters, accompanied by her loser friend and a goofy conspiracy-theorist has taken up the investigation of Apex, convinced that Godzilla must have a reason for what he does and determined to prove it.

So, the film is utterly ridiculous, even for a kaiju flick (and to be honest, I prefer them to be more restrained than this: the Heisei films of the 90s are about the sweet spot for me when it comes to tone).

Now, to me the most important thing about this film was that the monsters would be played with respect and, well, frankly, how they ended the fight. And I’m please to say that in both cases I thought the film passed with flying colors (Godzilla is still a little too heroic for my tastes, but he’s otherwise pretty perfectly in character).

The battles give full scope to both monsters’ power and capabilities (well, Godzilla has a harder time tagging Kong with his ray than he probably should, but you can see why that was necessary). Kong is agile and clever, using tools and tricks to his advantage, while Godzilla is overwhelmingly powerful and durable, with a potential trump card in his atomic ray. When they fight on the ocean, Godzilla thoroughly dominates due to being a semi-aquatic creature. When they fight in the city, Kong has more of an advantage due to the abundant cover and high-ground (Kong’s talent for climbing buildings is used to a frankly ridiculous extent here, as I’m highly skeptical these buildings could support his new weight. But again, it fits the tone of the film and it’s what we want to see). He also picks up an axe from the center of the earth that allows him to even the playing field a bit against Godzilla’s ray.

In short, the film allows its title bout to play out more or less according to the nature of the characters. Which is to say: Godzilla not only wins, but wins decisively, taking both rounds with Kong, while the best Kong can do is knock him down for a bit. To top everything off, Godzilla finishes the second bout in a manner that suggests he had actually been holding back for most of the film. Once he goes all-out, Godzilla utterly dominates Kong. Oh, Kong puts up a good fight, but at the end of the day Godzilla is simply a much more powerful being than he is and much credit to the filmmakers for being honest enough to see that a fight between them can really only end one way.

I also really like how the fight ends: Godzilla savagely mauls Kong, puts his foot on his chest, and roars in his face. He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he could kill Kong easily in that moment. But then…he doesn’t. Whether out of respect or simply because he perceives that Kong is no longer a threat, Godzilla spares him and leaves him to live or die on his own. That’s a great touch, re-asserting the fundamental nobility and dignity of the Godzilla character and ending their battle on a satisfying note. Not to mention that it makes their subsequent alliance that much more believable.

(I can’t resist noting that this means that Godzilla shows more mercy and humanity than Batman. But that’s another story).

So, I found the film’s take on the titular match up to be, by and large, extremely satisfying. It actually reminded me of something like a full-length Death Battle episode, where the goal seems to be just to show off all that the respective combatants can do and how they stack up against each other. Again, things like Kong climbing on buildings (there’s a bit where he waits on top of a skyscraper to ambush Godzilla: posed just as he was in the original film), Godzilla using his nature as a sea monster to full advantage, Kong using crude weapons, trying to pull Godzilla’s jaws apart, and so on. There was really no effort whatever to make any of this realistic. The goal seems to have been to make it ‘what you would imagine’ the fight to be, the kind of cartoonish, comic-book style action suggested by the question “Who would win: King Kong or Godzilla?” (Freddy vs. Jason did something similar, though to a less extreme degree). It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed the heck out of it.

As for the rest of the film…ah, mixed bag.

In the first place, I rather liked ‘Team Kong’: the researcher, her maybe-ex-boyfriend, and the little girl. The fact that the latter only speaks in sign language was a nice touch (the fact that Kong now speaks it is…well, interesting. Certainly not out of the question for the character). I especially appreciate that the boyfriend, though he gets sneered at for being nervous around Kong (and why? How is that in any way an unreasonable reaction?), he subsequently gets many opportunities to show his courage and be heroic, protecting the woman and child, and actually gets acknowledged and appreciated for it. Thank you movie for that!

‘Team Godzilla’, on the other hand, is mostly just annoying. We have the smart, on-the-ball teenage girl, her overweight nerdy male friend, and the goofy conspiracy theorist. Pretty standard contemporary dynamic. Why couldn’t we have the male friend be on a level with her? Why couldn’t the adult be actually mature and level-headed? Why couldn’t you have had some kind of balance of the three, or baring that, just drop one or more to make everyone heroic and useful (Team Kong had that courtesy), or at bare minimum, not annoying? To be fair, nerdy friend does get to save the day in the end with a moment of inspiration, but gets no appreciation or growth from it. Kyle Chandler’s character is likewise completely wasted in the ‘not now, kiddo’ role. Why not have father and daughter both working on the problem and dump conspiracy theorist and loser friend? That way we’d have an actual, you know, relationship on our hands.

Also, the Apex facilities have ridiculously incompetent security, but I suppose that’s to be expected.

The human villains aren’t much to write home about either. Evil corporate guy has a plan to eliminate and replace Godzilla, his haughty ‘corporate chick’ daughter serves as the heavy on Team Kong while being ridiculously stupid at several points, and then there’s the henchman / pilot. The latter is inexplicably named ‘Ren Serizawa’, suggesting a connection with Ken Watanabe’s character of the past films. This never effects anything or even comes up, making me wonder why they bothered.

It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to say that Apex is making Mechagodzilla. But there is a bit of a twist: they’re using one of King Ghidorah’s heads as the control basis so that they can piggy-back off of his telepathy.

Now I love this idea: blending two of Godzilla’s biggest and most important opponents and giving his archnemesis another shot at him to close out the trilogy. In fact, I like the idea so much that I wish they had given Mechagodzilla his own film to fully explore the implications. I mean, a man is mentally linked up with King Ghidorah: there is a tremendous amount of stuff you can do with that idea (as a matter of fact, this idea seems to have been drawn from one of Marc Ceresini’s novels, which did explore the implications. In the book the pilot of Mecha-Ghidorah was a teenage girl, who becomes increasingly twisted by her contact with the King of Terror. At one point her guardian recounts coming home to find her eating a bird she’d killed. As I say, this is an idea that you really need time to explore).

This also reminds me of how much I wish they had dropped the stupid ‘Orca’ device from the previous film and just brought back the telepathy angle of the Heisei films. They could have made the Millie-Bobby Brown character this series’ version of Miki Saegusa. That would have covered about five or six plot holes right there. But I digress.

Anyway, though I wish the Mechagodzilla stuff had been given more time, what they have is pretty good, giving full-scope to his overwhelming power even with his limited screentime. We get the traditional beam-lock with Godzilla, as well as several new weapons, like a drill-tipped tail. I can’t say I care for the new design that much, however: it’s too busy and lacks the cold, smooth, metallic look of previous incarnations that stood out so well against its living counterpart. I also wish that Godzilla had been allowed to participate more in finishing him off, but I suppose they wanted to throw Kong a bone after losing the title fight. It also works given that it was Kong’s persistence that left Godzilla too worn-out to properly challenge Mechagodzilla in the first place, making it something of a penitential act on Kong’s part to finish the job.

The ‘energy source’ plot was great in concept: of course for something like Mechagodzilla the biggest problem would be finding a way to power him (in the 1992 film they specified that they were using a nuclear reactor). Employing Kong to find a secret source of power is also directly taken from the plot of King Kong Escapes, which is all kinds of awesome (I should say that the filmmakers include many homages and nods to classic Toho; they clearly did their research). However, when they actually find it, they sort of…email the energy? Huh? I get they wanted to move things along, but they should have bitten the bullet and just had someone ferry it back to the surface (it would have meant differing corporate chick’s comeuppance, but then they could have gotten it without her being suicidally stupid).

Speaking of which, the additions to Kong’s character were…interesting. At the very least, they show a willingness on the part of the filmmakers to get creative and to try to add something to such a venerable figure. The trip to the hollow earth was a glorious piece of pulp sci-fi nonsense, a chance to go creatively crazy with landscapes above and below and a shifting gravity field, as well as, of course, your standard horrible monsters for Kong to fight (flying snake things: certainly an appropriate denizen for the center of the earth).

On that note, the movie takes a kind of ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to creativity, drawing from classic Toho films, pulp adventures, previous Kong films, and others for a hodgepodge of sci-fi ideas. We have giant monsters, giant robots, telepathic aliens, a globe-spanning underground fast-delivery system, a prehistoric world at the center of the earth, conspiracies, gravitational anomalies, and on and on. I love the freedom and exuberance that the filmmakers show in just throwing all this stuff at the screen.

That said, I’m not sure about the suggestion of a Kong culture that once existed in the center of the Earth, or of an actual war between Kongs and Godzillas (frankly, I don’t particularly like the idea of Godzilla being a species in the first place: he ought to be a unique or almost unique being, mutated out of whatever genus he had once occupied into what he is now. Again, the Heisei films gave what I thought was the best origin story for him). It seems a little too much. Though the bit where Kong takes his seat on a giant throne, an actual king at last, was pretty cool.

Godzilla being able to blast down in the center of the Earth with his ray was frankly the most ridiculously stupid thing in the film. Actually, my main complaint about his portrayal here is that he uses his ray way too much and for too long at a stretch: a one point he keeps it going for minutes on end while trying to tag Kong. That kind of undermines it as a weapon, and I think he should have a pretty clear limit on how long he can fire it for, so that when he does use it for an extended period, it’s more impactful for the fact that he’s clearly making a special effort (e.g. when he shoots the meteor at the end of Godzilla: Final Wars). They over do his plates lighting up as well: I don’t really like him using it as a threat display. I prefer to know that once they start to glow, it means the ray is coming. But that’s more a problem from the previous film.

Again, though, I was overall very satisfied. The most important thing wasn’t necessarily that the plot was well-thought out or that the monster’s abilities were perfectly portrayed. It was that the characters were treated with respect and allowed to be themselves. And they pretty much nailed that: Godzilla and Kong are both the dangerous, noble, ferocious kings they ought to be. Their dynamic, with Godzilla being the unstoppable, world-defying juggernaut tasked with battling existential threats and Kong the scrappy, defiant, but ultimately out-classed independent party just seeking a place to survive, was perfect.

That is really the chief difference between them, thematically: Kong is about nature being conquered by man. For all his power, he ultimately can’t compete with human civilization and so falls. Here, in a more modern twist, man is alternately trying to preserve and protect Kong and exploit him for their own ends. In any case, Kong is ultimately vulnerable to man. Godzilla, on the other hand, is nature that cannot be conquered: he is the consequence of that supposed conquest. As Boethius put it, anything that escapes from the order assigned to it only falls back into a different order. If man disrupts the order of nature, a more fundamental order, one that he cannot disrupt, is called into play. Godzilla is the embodiment of this deeper nature: the unexpected, disastrous, and uncontrollable consequences of disruption.

So, thematically, you could put it that when man kills Kong, he creates Godzilla (which is sort of what happened with the original films, as Godzilla was partly inspired by King Kong).

Of course, this is another reason the fight can only end one way. For all his power, Kong is fundamentally vulnerable to man. Godzilla isn’t. The question facing the humans in one case is ‘what do we do with Kong?’ whereas in the other it’s ‘can we do anything against Godzilla?’ This is what makes each one interesting, and also what dictates the outcome of their encounter.

In any case, I really enjoyed Godzilla vs. Kong. It was a completely insane, ridiculous, and delightful romp with some of my all-time favorite characters, and for once the filmmakers actually paid what felt like genuine respect to the classics that came before them rather than adopting a faux-superior stance. It could have been a lot better (e.g. fixing the ‘team Godzilla’ storyline), but its high points are so immensely satisfying that I don’t really mind too much. I think that, for all their flaws, I will be glad to have the entire Legendary trilogy on my DVD shelf as a tribute to my most beloved film franchise of them all.

Quotes that Should Have Been Included

Following on from yesterday, here’s a sample of thirty movie quotes that I would have included in the AFI List (all from films released at the time of the list in 2005, so as to be fair):

1. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
-Roy Batty, Blade Runner 1982

2. “Get away from her, you bitch!”
-Ripley, Aliens 1986

3. “Shut up and deal.”
-Fran Kubelik, The Apartment 1960

4. “No. I am your father.”
-Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back 1980

5. “There is a leopard on your roof and it’s my leopard, and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing.”
-Susan Vance, Bringing Up Baby 1938

6. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
-Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride 1987

7. “Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch!”
-Rooster Cogburn, True Grit 1969

8. “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!”
-John McClane, Die Hard 1988

9. “Free! Free at last!”
-Edward Hyde, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931

10. “Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say ‘Yes’!”
-Winston Zeddemore, Ghostbusters 1984

11. “How am I funny? Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?”
-Tommy de Vito, Goodfellas 1990

12. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
-Maxwell Scott, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 1962

13. “People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live.”
-Longfellow Deeds, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 1936

14. “You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.”
-Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939

15. “Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!”
-Robin Hood, The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938

16. “Earn this.”
-Capt. John Miller, Saving Private Ryan 1998

17. “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.”
-Nada, They Live 1988

18. “Shut up, Mr. Burton. You are not brought upon this world to ‘get it’.”
-Lo Pan, Big Trouble in Little China 1986

19. “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!”
-Ned Scott, The Thing from Another World 1951

20. “The fate of billions depends upon you. Heh heh heh!…Sorry.”
-Lord Raiden, Mortal Kombat 1995

21. “You’ll be here too?”
“I guess so, I usually am.”
“Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?”
“I wonder if I know what you mean.”
“I wonder if you wonder.”
-Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity 1944

22. “Look down there. Tell me; would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand dollars for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
-Harry Lime, The Third Man 1949

23. “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands, like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
-Sir Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons 1966

24. “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
-Eleanor of Acquitaine, The Lion in Winter 1968

25. “Waiter will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts.”
-Nora Charles, The Thin Man 1934

26. “And should we win the day, the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American holiday. But as the day when the wold declared in one voice ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!’ We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”
-President Whitmore, Independence Day 1996

27. “Broke into the wrong goddamn rec-room didn’t you, you bastard!”
-Burt Gummer, Tremors 1990

28. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
-Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988

29. “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
-Doc Brown, Back to the Future 1985

30. “Welcome to Jurassic Park.”
-John Hammond, Jurassic Park 1993

AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes

Obviously don’t completely agree with this line up (nothing from The Princess Bride? Ghostbusters? No “Like tears in rain”, no “I am your Father”, no “You all think I’m licked”? Seriously?), but it’s a respectable collection. In any case, the editing and accompanying music is excellently done.

Enjoy

It can also be found here.