1. My cold of two weeks ago came back with a vengeance this week. Never quite bad enough to keep me away from work (certainly not while I’m still on probation time before my PTO becomes available), but more than bad enough to make the experience quite miserable. Hence why this is a non-specific Flotsam. So, for today I’m just going to toss off some miscellaneous thoughts that I’m too tired to flesh out much.
2. It is sometimes said that you shouldn’t trust primary sources in historical inquiry since they will be biased. Instead, you should trust the professional historian, who is trained to sift through these biases. Indeed, the primary sources are biased. So is the professional historian.
The difference is that the historical bias of the primary source is itself a part of that same history. The bias of the historian is not.
3. Do you notice that there is what you might call an ‘assumed culture’ at work in today’s world? Anything made for general public consumption that doesn’t originate from a source with an otherwise strongly marked character makes the same references and presumes the same values: you’ve seen Star Wars and Game of Thrones. You vote democrat. You’re non-religious. You’re into, or at least familiar with certain pop stars, and so on. It’s like there’s a giant mutual-aid society, in which a web of entertainers, politicians, businessmen, and so on give each other shout-outs and kudos.
I find this kind of boring, even when they reference things I like. It also begins to give that kind of ‘unman’ feel, like there’s no actual personality behind the references, but something trying to ape a personality.
(See, that’s an example: when was the last time you heard a Space Trilogy reference in anything made for the general public?)
4. There’s also the thing where people will cheer when someone mentions an officially protected demographic. Basically a way of signalling “I’m a good person!” or “I am offering the right obeisance!”
5. Oh, speaking of which, I remember during the (mercifully brief) ‘Diversity, Inclusion, Equity’ portion of the onboarding process, they talked about how ‘we’ve found that diversity isn’t just race, religion, sex, and so on, but things like what school you went to, what neighborhood you grew up it, what your experiences are.’
In other words, diversity is supposedly the startling insight that companies employ individuals. This amazing fact requires an entire department and continual training to understand, and we presume that you, the employees, will need to be constantly reminded of this.
I also love that ‘we’ve found’ (or it might have even been ‘experts have discovered’, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt): apparently, the idea that people can be distinguished by things apart from officially designated categories came as a blinding insight.
6. I notice that a lot of moderns have an idea about nature that goes something like this: that the ideal of nature is balance, of all things working together in harmony to allow all to thrive.
If you want to see how much nature values ‘balance’, try introducing a species into a new environment and see how nature deals with it. Nine times out of ten, what happens is either a). the new species gets quickly wiped out by the existing species or b). the new species utterly dominates the ecosystem and wipes out many of the existing species (rats are especially gifted at doing this).
See, nature isn’t about balance: nature is about every species and almost every individual trying to get as much as it possibly can. In other words, nature isn’t harmony: it’s warfare. The ‘balance’ is an illusion created by the fact that the species withing a given ecosystem have all reached a point of more or less stalemate. The moment any species has a real advantage, it rides it as far as it can, happily wiping out everything else around it even if this means dooming itself in the long term.
(Someone might say that introducing rats to isolated islands isn’t natural because humans do it. Well, one, that doesn’t change the fact that rats still act according to nature, and two, the result would be the same whether the rats got there on ships or floating on driftwood).
Nature doesn’t care about balance: nature cares about survival, and not even long-term survival.
7. “Your counterexamples don’t really prove your point so much as they prove you don’t understand mine.”
One of those things that passes through the mind a lot, but which takes a while to catch and articulate.
1. I’ve been re-watching some of Batman: The Animated Series lately, reminding myself of just how good it really was. Those gorgeous black-paper backgrounds, that wonderful Fleischer-style animation (the creators said they wanted it to look as though it had been made in the 1940s. I think they succeeded both in look and feel), those striking musical scores (I want to say they made a new one for each episode, certainly a new motif for each character), and of course the wonderful stories and stellar voice acting: Kevin Conroy at Batman. Mark Hamill as the Joker (I’ll admit, I almost associate him more with that role than with that sci-fi movie). Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred. Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon. Roddy McDowall as the Mad Hatter. Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman. Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. Paul Williams as the Penguin. Ron Perlman as Clayface. David Warner as Ra’s Al Ghul. John Glover as the Riddler. Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. Not to mention one-shot roles from the likes of Tim Curry (who was originally slated to play the Joker, but was considered ‘too scary’, which…given Hamill’s performance makes one wonder), Thomas F. Wilson, Dick Miller, Bill Mumy, John Rhys-Davies, Harry Hamlin, and of course Adam West. As the saying goes, I’d watch a cast like that read a phone book (at one point, that’s pretty close to what happens).
2. Watching the episodes, though, I was struck by how different this is from what has become the usual Batman fare, and even from the subsequent direction the character took in future shows ostensibly set in the same universe (New Batman Adventures, Justice League, etc). The stories here tend to be much more subdued and down-to-earth: ordinary crime stories and dramas (e.g. one episode has a ruthless tycoon planning to stage a gas explosion to clear out a neighborhood he wants to develop). Batman doesn’t always deal with supervillains, and even when he does the villains are themselves a bit more low-key than in other versions. Like, you’ll see scenes at Arkham where Joker, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, and Scarecrow are just hanging out in the lounge playing chess or watching TV while a couple of guards stand watch, occasionally intervening to break up a petty squabble. In other words, they’re…actual mental patients! A more contemporary Batman story would have all four under Hannibal-Lecter-style maximum security restraints and still murdering guards left and right.
3. The show also emphasizes Batman’s status as a detective. He spends most of the episodes following up clues and interrogating suspects (one of my favorite scenes has him interrogating a germaphobic gangster in a hospital storeroom full of viral samples: “Hm, crimson fever. Nasty way to go…”), or else trying to escape a death trap. Nor is he an infallible fighter: he’s skilled and quick, but he has to work at it to take down even normal thugs, and the show emphasizes that he’s always in danger during the action scenes (this despite the fact that most of the bad guys have an aim that would make a Stormtrooper blush).
(He’s also a lot more…well, normal. He’s less relentlessly grim, in and out of costume, than he would become, expressing fear, shock, and even amusement at times, cracking jokes with Alfred, and so on. BTAS Bruce is much more well-adjusted than later DCAU Bruce. And that’s kind of saying a lot).
Frankly, I like this a lot better than the idea that Batman’s the greatest fighter in the world (along with being the greatest everything else). I much prefer him being an extremely skilled, but still limited human being whose abilities are all tailored to his mission in life (very much like Sherlock Holmes), but which inevitably come up short sometimes, forcing him to think outside the box. I really don’t like when Batman simply pulls some obscure new skill out of his utility belt whenever it comes up, or when he’s played as being so supremely cunning that he can defeat anyone with prep time.
The big example of this sort of thing for me came in an episode of Justice League (a show I really like, by the way), where they’re dealing with a plot in some small Eastern European / western Asian nation. Batman confronts a guard, who taunts him that he can’t understand a word he’s saying anyway. Batman answers in the same language, proving himself to be fluent in it. See, that’s the sort of thing that bugs me: he would have had no reason to learn that language, it never would have come up but for this one incident. But he’s Batman, so of course he has any skill he needs because it makes him ‘cool.’
(Ironically enough, this means I have the same problem with some versions of Batman that most other people have with Superman: that’s he’s too infallible and over-stocked with abilities).
Me, I much prefer the ‘Animated Series’ style to the character. It feels to me like BTAS exists in a kind of separate, parallel world to the rest of the DCAU: a world where there isn’t a Superman or Themyscira or Green Lanter Corps, just a city full of broken, twisted human beings, some of whom have, through mad science run amok, gained powers beyond the ordinary, and where there is a hint of the supernatural, but where for the most part it’s simply all-too human heroes and criminals fighting over the lives of the ordinary citizens.
Again, I like the DCAU as a whole, and of course I love Superman, but it has a different flavor, and overall I think I like Batman best when he exists apart from ‘all that’ (it also lets me imagine that there’s a version where things turned out happier for everyone involved than Batman Beyond indicates. Among other things, I want Dick and Barbara to end up together. And no version of Batgirl should have a romance with Batman: that’s just wrong on multiple levels. But now I’m getting on even more of a tangent…).
Short version is that, as I see it, there are two versions: ‘pure’ Batman and ‘Justice League’ Batman. For my money, as far as Batman’s concerned, I prefer the former (simple way to distinguish: in ‘Pure’ version, Dick ends up with Barbara. In ‘Justice League’ version, he ends up with Starfire. Easy!).
4. On another note, still going through training at my new job. It’s much more enjoyable now that it’s getting more relevant to my actual position (still a lot of training to go, though).
That said, the on boarding process at a large corporation these days feels a lot like this to me:
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.
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.
1. Still in the ‘awkward transition’ phase regarding my new job, where I haven’t even begun to do the actual job I’ve been hired for (which itself is a trainee position), and I’m still getting used to the new schedule and what is and is not an option now. I’m at least keeping regular writing times, though, so that’s making me feel grounded, though I haven’t figured out how to fit blogging in.
2. At work the subject of arbitrary enforcement came up: the thing where people will create completely meaningless standards – e.g. “you take cream in your coffee? What kind of man are you?” – and enforce them for the group. I said (and the conversation moved on) that this is an authority thing: people assuming a position of authority in the social hierarchy. Status means that you are the one who sets the standard (giving nicknames is another way of assuming authority), so when you have an otherwise ‘equal’ group, those of an aggressive temperament will naturally try to seize the highest position they can.
Again, allowing for human wickedness and stupidity, this tends to only occur between ostensible equals as a means of setting the social hierarchy. It occurs between privates in a platoon, not between privates and officers. It occurs between priests in a parish, not between priests and bishops. It occurs among the gentry, not between the gentry and the artisans. Not to say you won’t find a stupid aristocrat who sneers at his tenants for not liking the right music or something, but generally vices directed at inferiors are of a different kind than snobbery: more of officiousness or arbitrary rule or selfishness.
3. Reading a piece at The Orthosphere I had one of those ‘oh, of course,’ moments, where you’re told something and realize that you should have known that all along from the nature of the case.
“highly egalitarian societies… have high homicide rates.”
Well, of course they do. When no one is any better or higher than anyone else, officially, then when there’s a dispute, the principles have to settle the matter themselves. But the only final, ‘authoritative’ way that two equal individuals have of settling matters is violence. The ‘talk it out’ solution advocated in schools only works when both sides are prepared to be reasonable and look at the matter objectively, which will be so in only a tiny minority of cases. How many times do kids on a playground actually ‘talk things out’ to the satisfaction of both? Not saying it never happens, but it would require exceptional kids on both sides.
What actually happens probably ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is that one kid, the one with the more extroverted and aggressive temperament, talks down the other and gets the rest of the group to gang up on him to force him to concede.
Because there’s another factor at play which the Orthosphere author doesn’t bring up: the fact that in the absence of an official hierarchy (or even in the presence of one, but wherever it doesn’t operate), people will create their own, even in something as petty as ‘what kind of shirt do you wear?’ or ‘what kind of car do you drive’? And people will be much more aggressive and quick to enforce these kinds of ‘unofficial’ hierarchies because they don’t rest on anything but the vigilance of the individual. A king doesn’t have to keep pushing arbitrary rules to remind people he is the king, but a ‘free and equal citizen’ does, because it’s the only way he can keep his place.
The more egalitarian you try to make a society, the more socially repressive, mistrustful, and violent it will become as people try to claw out and maintain their position.
Because the fact is that all human societies are hierarchical: that is just part of the form of society as such. If you don’t have a structure, a hierarchy, then you don’t actually have a society, just a collection of individuals, who will operate as individuals (like how if you get the parts of your computer ‘out of form’, you no longer have a computer as such, just a lot of metal and plastic operating as metal and plastic).
And one thing individuals naturally try to do is to form societies and establish social status. So that even if you could create a perfectly egalitarian state, the people living within it would quickly set up their own competing tribes and hierarchies. It would be like trying to keep the sea perfectly flat: that is just not how the thing works.
4. The evil of snobbery lies in the fact that it is someone laying claim to a status that he doesn’t actually deserve and that he misuses in any case. Mrs. Elton in Emma is a snob because she assumes a position she doesn’t actually merit, defends it aggressively by cutting down people who aren’t actually a threat to it, and uses her position bluntly and officiously once she’s in it. Emma herself is also a bit of a snob, but much less so because A). she has a right to her position, and B). she mostly uses it responsibly, except in trying to encourage Harriet to lay claim to a higher position than she’s actually entitled to (so, sort of a snobbery by proxy).
But I don’t think most people really mind class distinctions. The structure would hardly have persisted so long and so universally if they did. The people who object to hierarchies are those who want to move from one level to another and find it more difficult than they think it ought to be (trouble is that these are often the very same kind of ne’er-do-wells who like to write books). The common farmer generally doesn’t mind living under a duke: it is the nouveau-riche industrialist who chafes at aristocratic privilege.
5. And it’s the latter who leads revolutions. We like to think of rebellions as the poor, downtrodden masses rising up against their aristocratic overlords. Actually, from all I can tell, it’s the rich classes who are the revolutionaries: the ones who are powerful, but feel they aren’t as powerful as they deserve to be. That is, the ones who have more practical power than official power.
(There’s another element of the ones who feel ashamed for being rich, but don’t know what to do about it. Those who lack either the training or the stomach to be Saints become Revolutionaries as an easier alternative. And part of me wants to make a ‘Navy – Coast Guard’ joke here).
The impoverished masses tend to be conservative, at least until the propaganda gets to them. Because, of course, it really makes very little difference to the average tenant farmer or artisan or factory hand whether he lives under a republic or a monarchy, except that his sense of cultural identity (and thus tribal belonging) is bound up in whichever one he happens to have been born in. Thus the very same populations who were Loyalist in 1776 tended to be Union in 1861.
So, in summary, Revolutions tend to be rich men convincing poor men that they are being oppressed so that the poor men will go risk death to gain a higher status for the rich men.
6. On that note, happy Fourth of July everyone!
Perhaps it’ll help if I say that however the nation came to be, now that it’s established I would have it continue and improve. I would see it restored to the days of its glory, and I would be thankful even for the optimism of the early-mid twentieth century. Basically, I’d hold my tongue about this whole subject if it meant we could have a functional society again.
This, by the way, is why I’m still a Union proponent in the Late Unpleasantness, even though in many ways I sympathize more with the Confederacy. Revolution is a genie that is very hard to get back into the bottle once it gets out, and I think that if the Confederacy had been established, both it and the Union would only have experienced an endless string of bloody, petty uprisings as one state or another decided it was being oppressed and took up arms against another (heck, it nearly happened between Michigan and Ohio in 1835, and again between Arizona and California in 1934). The real necessity of the war was to firmly establish that we were done with in this country, and the result is that, after the ‘simmering down’ period, we had a more-or-less unified national identity all the way up to a couple decades ago.
7. Just so there’s no misunderstanding (yeah, right), I don’t think slavery would have outlived the 19th century, whatever happened. World opinion (i.e. the British Empire) was too set against it, and I don’t think the Confederacy, or whatever Balkanized collection of states resulted from it could have survived as the lone Western slave-holding nation. Probably would have been better overall if it slavery hadn’t been settled in the war and had simply been allowed to die a natural death, but that’s another issue entirely.
8. Let’s try to end on a high note here (wish the image quality was better, but it was the only one I could find). This is the kind of thing I’d like to see come back, my own disillusionment notwithstanding:
Once again, Mickey Mouse’s copyright is due to expire before too much longer (which would mean Uncle Walt’s spirit would finally be able to rest). I’m sure Disney will try to get copyright laws extended again, but they can’t keep that up for ever. I’d recommend they get ahead of things and select a new mascot, one that better fits their current philosophy.
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 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).
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.
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.
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”).
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).
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.
1. I have been reading the letters of Professor Tolkien lately, mostly straight through, though sometimes jumping about when I want to find his views on something specific. Mostly I read it because I enjoy his company, as it were, and I feel as though I am getting to know him personally as a man. He was, of course, a genius, but what is rather more important than that what might be called a deep soul. There are great wells of sensitivity in him. I almost wrote ‘of poetical feeling’, but that doesn’t really convey the right idea. When two people love one another very deeply, they naturally come to know one another intimately, which adds further depth to their love. Some men are like that with the works of God, able to put their hands down into creation itself as it were and perceive the startling pattern and order and beauty of all these unique natures acting out creation (for creation isn’t a moment of time long ago, it’s the unfolding process all around us: a created thing doesn’t merely ‘exist’, part of its being is to act and be acted upon).
It is the sort of thing that a modern or a scientific mind tends rather to impede than otherwise, as looking at things too mechanically: e.g. continually asking “what is the good of the thing?” what which we mean “how can this thing make someone’s life a little longer, a little more secure, and a little more comfortable?” But the thing I’m talking about is a matter of seeing the good in a thing itself, as what it is.
Of course the trouble with trying to describe this is just that it doesn’t go into scientifically precise language, or if it does I’m afraid I don’t have the vocabulary for it yet (and if I did, you the reader probably wouldn’t, rendering the whole thing a glorified glossary). My point is that Professor Tolkien had this perception in abundance. He was something of an atavism: a man whose tastes and mindset were rather more of the high Middle Ages, though flavored through with that distinct character of Victorian and early 20th-century England (which is a topic all in itself).
In any case, I’m much enjoying spending time with the Professor and basking in his rich sanity.
2. It is also quite interesting to see men from different perspectives. Professor Tolkien offers a number of insights into Professor Lewis, obviously his dear friend for many years (and even after their friendship cooled he still refers to him with great affection and admiration). Among other things he refers to Lewis’s strong anti-Catholic prejudices, something that only rarely comes out in Lewis’s own writings (as he didn’t think it his place to deal with inter-communion debates, at least not publicly). Those who say that Lewis was ‘almost a Catholic’ frankly need to read more of the man: he shared many distinctly Catholic views and was friends with many Catholics and admired nuns, but his northern-Irish upbringing had left very strong roots of aversion to the Church herself (it would be an unpardonable license of me to speculate on why). That comes out even on a close reading of his religious works (e.g. his insistence that ‘the Church’ means ‘the invisible body of all believers’: one of his less coherent ideas). There’s one letter where Tolkien notes that Lewis, though otherwise as anti-Red as any man, yet had a blindspot for believing everything the papers said about Franco and the situation in Spain, refusing to hear a word in his favor or to believe the stories of priests and religious being massacred, though quick to credit tales of Protestant preachers being mistreated. He was “very quiet” after an evening with Roy Campbell, who had been in Spain and fought on Franco’s side.
It’s rather startling to find such a failing recorded, not just because it’s recorded of such an otherwise astute and good-hearted man, but also because it’s so familiar to us today. This is one of those moments where, as one of my college professors put it, the intervening years simply melt away. Though as Tolkien pointed out in commenting on the event, hatred of, or at least aversion to Rome is really the only justification for Anglicanism (St. John Henry Newman made a similar point, and it was one of the reasons he left the Anglican communion. I’d like to find Tolkien’s view on St. Newman (as an extra-extra aside, I’m finding it tricky to find a good shorthand to address this particular saint, since we also have St. John Neuman of Philadelphia. I’m reduced to addressing him by his full name every time. I rather think he finds the conundrum amusing) ).
3. I hope no one thinks I’m criticizing Professor Lewis in any of this: he’s well beyond my criticism, and as noted Professor Tolkien still fought tooth and nail against those who bad-mouthed him even after their friendship had cooled. I just think it’s interesting. We have to remember that in reading what men wrote, especially what they wrote for publication, we’re getting a very select view of them, often the very best that they have to offer, heavily polished and reflected over. That’s why, in Lewis’s own works, one is sometimes rather surprised to find him referring to his own bad temper, or to his many other, less mentionable sins. We don’t associate the erudite, warm-hearted voice of the author with the things he describes of himself. Unless, of course, we reflect on how different we are from what we ourselves write.
4. This took a different direction than I intended. I wanted to comment a bit on the Amazon ‘Lord of the Rings’ series (sic), or at least what little I’ve heard of it (i.e. that some moron wanted his own version of Game of Thrones and so appropriated Tolkien for the purposes, since the Shadow can only mock and cannot make). The most, ah, illustrative incident I’ve encountered is a tweet from whatever orc now runs ‘theonering.net’ justifying their desecration of the Professor’s work by claiming that Tolkien was ‘woke’.
Yes, the most prominent reactionary author of the 20th century, the devout Roman Catholic and Medievalist who despised ‘progress’ and who described himself as possibly “a non-constitutional monarchist” is claimed for the anti-reality brigade. May them and all their works be thrown down and forgotten.
(He also justifies the race-swapping on hand by claiming Tolkien ‘never described his character’s color’, indicating the idiot never actually read the books, given the number of times the descriptors ‘fair’, ‘swarthy’, and so on are used).
I think Professor Tolkien himself expressed my feelings best (writing of Prof. Lewis’s death): “I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him.”
5. On the other hand, I’ve also seen defenders of Tolkien claim him for the Libertarian camp, which is equally absurd. The trouble, I think, is that we today have a very limited idea of politics and worldviews: we misunderstand things because most of us only have two or three categories in which to put them (we always like to say “there are two kinds of people in the world….” Makes things so much simpler). Partly this is a consequence of our liberal heritage: liberalism always presented itself as the great foe of tyranny, which basically meant that anything not liberal was tyrannical and anything liberal was freedom (e.g. King Louis trying to enforce the established rules of the Estates General is tyranny. Confiscating the property of the Church and giving it to rich industrialists and landowners is freedom).
This tendency is reinforced by the American tradition of having two viable political parties, the platforms of which are an absurd hodgepodge of mostly unrelated positions.
The idea that someone can stand at right angles to both sides, or dispute the fundamental principles at work in both, never really enters our heads. So we try to squeeze all varieties of Monarchists (and there are probably at least as many varieties of Monarchism as there are of Liberalism, just that Monarchists tend not to feel obligated to impose their own version upon the rest of the world as the only means to liberty) or other reactionaries into the liberal-made boxes, with the result that their actual positions fly over our heads.
6. I think most people today, even those who love his work, don’t really grasp what Tolkien’s position was. They know it appeals strongly to them, and so they hunt out and focus on whatever is closest to their own point of view.
But the common appeal, I think, is the aforementioned ‘depth of soul’, which is so rare today and was never common to the degree that Tolkien had it and combined it with genius. Most examples of it are behind difficult, archaic language and obviously alien (to us) points of view, but Tolkien is a near contemporary of ours who brings all that sort of thing forward in an almost familiar way.
Basically, moderns are starved for real myth and depth and Tolkien is one of the few places they find it (his many imitators, even the talented ones, I think grasp at something they lack the background or ‘content’ to create).
All this sort of thing ought to be found in the Church, and still can be for those willing to look, but alas, the majority of the stewards of the Church are as orcish, small-minded, and materialistic (in assumption if not in belief) as most of their contemporaries and so tuck away the really appealing elements that people are starving for into the backroom as something shameful while emphasizing the same shallow, boring junk that people can get everywhere else.
7. Wow, that one took some twists and turns. Probably annoyed just about everyone at some point in that.
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.
1. Been a fairly busy week. Got my latest appreciation video up and running, been working on tomorrow’s entry in the ‘compare / contrast’ series, as well as working on my current book and doing stuff around the house. Also had to do some research / testing for another project, but that seems all in place, so probably look for that soon.
2. Last weekend I watched 101 Dalmations in, ah, ‘honor’ of Cruella. That’s really the kind of quirky, off-beat, creative stories that you just wouldn’t see made today. It doesn’t follow much of a formula; it starts off with almost a short film about a dog trying to set his master (or ‘pet’) up with a suitable girl. Then it cuts to after they’re married and a kidnapping plot ensues, with just more and more dogs being added all the time. You can’t really pitch a movie like that with the current “It’s like x crossed with y” formula.
My favorite aspect of the movie, personally, is the way all the dogs and other animals across the country pitch in to help. It’s a sweet image of community support and strangers working for a good end simply because everyone can see at a glance it’s the right thing to do (even the cast of Lady and the Tramp can be seen lending a paw).
3. Hm, writing that I realize there’s a ‘charity vs. selfishness’ theme going on: the heroes are charitable and loving, going out of their way to help others (such as Pongo declaring that they’ll take the whole lot of 84 extra puppies with them, even though it’ll make their journey exponentially more dangerous), while the villains are heartless and self-centered, simply trying to turn everything into a quick profit / source of vanity. In any case, do I even need to say that it’s a very good movie?
4. I also love the ‘What’s My Crime‘ parody of ‘What’s My Line‘. Now there’s a topical spoof that hasn’t aged a day, even though most people won’t remember the real show (“He is a burglar by trade, but this particular crime was not larceny”).
5. Went out shopping last weekend and found a certain kind of item that has been largely unattainable in recent months is back on the shelves. Rationed (in most variants), but available. I’ve been feeling under-supplied in this particular area lately, so I picked up a fair amount. Once I start my new job (got my offer letter today, so it’s a done deal), think that item is going to be a regular investment. It’s a non-perishable item, after all, so no chance of them going bad.
For any of our noble overlords reading this, I’m talking about crackers. Ritz crackers. Can’t get enough of them. I just wish I could find the, uh…non-crumbly versions? (Okay, that euphemism probably doesn’t work. I’m talking about slugs. 12-guage slug crackers. And by ’12-gauge’ I mean ‘yummy’).
6. Noticed that none of the places I went to insisted upon my wearing a mask. Seeing fewer and fewer of those around lately. I don’t know if this is because more and more people are getting vaccinated, or because the revelation that the architect of the Imposition was privately telling people they don’t actually work. Probably a little of both. I’ll take it.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.