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From Sprite to Screen: Mortal Kombat versus the Movies

06/20/2012 :: Posted at 09:41 PM by Mick-Lucifer
A Look Back at Mortal Kombats Pedigree for Overcoming Adaptation Pitfalls.

With the latest Mortal Kombat movie rumors sparking a surprised reaction [full story], we're reminded that you can never take for granted what will eventuate from the adaptation process.

Video games have now spent decades flirting with cinema, but in that time, very few movies have broken through an assumed stigma of incompatibility that still exists between the interactivity of games, and the plot structure of popular film. For prominent figures like film critic, Roger Ebert -- who infamously wrote in a 2010 blog, "... video games can never be art." -- the flaw may be presumed to lie in the source.

Despite the inherent similarities between these audio-visual mediums, which fans are no doubt more sympathetic to, critics and audiences have often agreed upon the failings of big screen adaptations, resulting in as many financial flops, as bad reviews.

In the eyes of many, the fighting genre has been particularly guilty of wasting time and money. Typically deviating wildly from the spirit of what made characters successful, fighting game films have contributed some of the most costly disappointments to DVD bargain bins. Infamous titles like; Tekken (2010), The King of Fighters (2009) and The Legend of Chun-Li (2009) have worked hard to earn the mutual ire of critics, fans and audiences alike, shedding dollars in the process. Indeed, as recent reference documents, time and experience has not improved the output of video game adaptations, at all.

Released theatrically in 1995, Mortal Kombat has managed to remain one of the most successful and best regarded movies of its type.

Time and scrutiny will open the movie up to criticism and lampooning, but by sticking to the most fundamental elements of the hugely successful franchise -- which already included helping handfuls of film reference (ie; Enter the Dragon) -- Mortal Kombat: The Movie made its mark on pop culture as a whole.

Following on the heels of notoriously unsuccessful outings -- Super Mario Bros. (1993), Double Dragon (1994) and Street Fighter (1994); MK provided a stark contrast to the less confident representations of major pop culture events. The movie was the launching pad for then- youthful and stylish director, now-contentious British genre-phile, Paul W.S. Anderson, but as the book Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood recounts, it wasn't a world of savvy understanding that embraced the watershed film.

It was during a visit to Midway's offices in Chicago, that [producer Larry] Kasanoff saw the company's new hot property, the Mortal Kombat coin-op. They took the movie producer down to a local arcade where it was testing off the scale. As kids crowded around the machine, Kasanoff realised they had a hit on their hands. That wasn't news to Midway. But the producer was also convinced it had potential as a movie. Their response? "Bullshit! There's no way you can do that. This is an arcade game, there's no way you can turn it into a movie." Kasanoff told them, "I don't just want to just make a movie. I want to make a franchise."

Despite the huge interest in Mortal Kombat's success, the reaction was largely one of derision or outright bewilderment. Hollywood, always risk averse, was convinced that videogame movies were the kiss of death after the corrosive impact of Super Mario Bros.. "Everyone was calling me up saying, ‘What are you doing? This is going to ruin your career. This is a videogame, this can't happen'."

Videogames were still considered a new phenomenon. The older generation of studio executives simply didn't get it. "My best story of what it was like back then was the meeting I had after I announced I had the rights to Mortal Kombat," says the producer. "[One of the studios] said, ‘This is great, come right up'. When I got there, I'm in a boardroom with millions of people and they're going: ‘This is fantastic, this is great, you've got Mortal Kombat, this is wonderful... er, what is it exactly?' I tried to explain to them but nobody even had a Nintendo console to play the game on. So we got a golf cart to drive around the lot until they found the merchandising guy. He had a console. We plug it in, I show them Mortal Kombat on Nintendo [the sanitised, bloodless version]. They looked at it for about 30 seconds, turned to me, stuck out their hands and say: ‘Well, thanks for coming.'"

"My philosophy always was: the reason why people fail making movies from videogames is because they try to make movies from videogames," Kasanoff explains, somewhat gnomically. "I thought: we're not making a movie based on a videogame, we're making a movie based on the story that the videogame is based on. The story is the centre of the wheel and the videogame is the extension of one of the spokes."

As a consumable piece of pop entertainment, MK had one eye on the times, one eye on the hugely popular source. It was a project that encapsulated the era on many levels -- an age which lacked proven reference of even cousin properties, like the comic book superheroes who dominate todays box office.

In many respects, the superhero cream that has risen to the record setting top has overcome the same difficulties that face video game cinema. Since the superhero movie era was grandfathered in by the shy black leather of X-Men (2000), the best movies have become increasingly deliberate and bold with their artful combination of visual and conceptual reference. It is progress gaming adaptations have struggled to make since 1995, and a truth to learn from as the medium ages.

Celebrating twenty years of Mortal Kombat, it's impossible to ignore the similar fictional catalogue the series has built-up -- a serial that has continued even in the latest chapter, which sets about rewriting major elements in MK history, by spring-boarding off the otherwise most recent.

The potential for the series to emulate the blockbuster pantheon of comic book adaptations is strong.


Most Watched: Legacy Flaunts Success in Variety Magazine Spot. [Source: @KTANCH]

With the success of the first Mortal Kombat film still in memory -- along with the bitter taste of its unimpressive sequel -- we await what lies ahead for the franchise. With major icons like Halo and Metal Gear Solid falling short of their hotly anticipated filmic aspirations, the burden of pressure weighs heavily on the proven record of MK, which has the potential to become a major film property again, backed by new owners, Warner Brothers.

With no less than a reported 56 Million views on YouTube, Mortal Kombat: Legacy has already carved the Dragon Logo into history, once more. As the most viewed online series in the history of the site, the game adaptation has blazed a trail in new media and set the stage for high expectations. It remains to be seen, however, how much of that audience will follow into the tradition of the box office, where tickets are more likely to only count once.

As noted in an update to the original story; Legacy director, Kevin Tancharoen, has poked fun at the widespread rumors of his films plot, first reported by Bloody Disgusting. No details have been officially released.

Special thanks to Yellow Ant for permission to use excerpts from Jamie Russel's insightful book, Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood. We will be featuring more from the book soon. For more details, visit the author's website. Discuss Mortal Kombat movies and more in the Media & Merchandise forum.

    
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