With the newly rebooted Mortal Kombat hitting theaters, inevitably the question will be asked, “Is this finally the first cinematic adaptation of a video game to actually get it right?”
The real question that people should be asking though is, “Do we care at all?” The answer ought to be a resounding “no,” because these types of movies have missed their window when they actually could have mattered about 30 years ago.
Video games have existed in Hollywood’s consciousness since the 1980s. Movies like Tron and War Games were more based on the idea of them, rather than about the plight of whoever the hell was piloting the ship in Galaga. They’ve also been used as window dressing in a number of scenes. How better to characterize someone as a nerd or a geek than by having them incessantly tapping on a controller and shouting obscenities at the screen? They’ve even been used as key plot elements, such as in The Wizard, which was an ironic instance of product placement where the audience was more interested in the commercial than the actual plot of the movie. Given that what was being advertised was Super Mario Bros 3, though, I mean, who can blame them?
In contrast, movies have almost been joined at gaming’s hip. Some of history’s most significant video games have been based on hit films. ET on the Atari 2600 was so abominable that many credit it with the 1982 video game market crash. Inversely, Goldeneye on the N64 has a bigger legacy than the Pierce Brosnan movie of the same name does, as it helped establish First Person Shooters as a viable genre on home consoles. In the mid 90s though, every middle-tier film company tried taking a crack at priming pixels for the silver screen, while films like Super Mario Bros and Double Dragon flopped, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat managed to actually succeed despite being unintentionally charming or okay at best. The reason though that this prospect of adapting video games was so exciting, was because at the time, movies could provide something to the story of these games that most gamers really freakin cared about back in the 90s.
The Sega Genesis basically sold itself on the fact that its games looked better than anything on the NES. Once the Super Nintendo trounced the Genesis in the graphics and sound departments, Sega countered by releasing the Sega CD, which could have orchestral soundtracks and Full Motion Video. Similarly, other companies entered the technological arms race, like Atari, claiming they had the first 64-bit console in the Jaguar, or Panasonic’s 3DO, which treated itself like a luxury item at a $700 price point. Even arcade legend SNK put out a home console, which was basically just a way to play arcade-perfect recreations of their games at home. For games, there was a push to look as good as possible. In the mid 90s, people thought graphics actually did make the game.
Similar to books, films could add something to the gaming medium’s adaptation, but at a cost. Films adapted books for the Faustian bargain of sacrificing the imagination of those who experienced it. Everyone who read Harry Potter before the first movie came out had their idea of how Hogwarts was supposed to look, but now, with the films existing, everyone’s idea now exists totally in reference to the design the films used. For games, movies could lend their visual fidelity at the cost of a game’s interactivity.
Someone could have played through Mortal Kombat in the arcade, with a play-through that they totally own, picking Sub-Zero as their character, and ripping out the spine of each and every opponent. Once the movie comes out though, turns out Liu-Kang is the undisputed main character. Fatalities are used sparingly, and the audience no longer has control of how the events can play out.
Audiences would continue to accept this compromise through the aughts, turning both Tomb Raider and Resident Evil into genuine cinematic franchises, despite both series producing absolutely atrocious films. Sure, Uwe Boll might have been in the background making intentionally bad adaptations to abuse German tax loopholes, but the sentiment was always the same no matter what the intention was behind the movie, that these pictures were just bad films that coasted on the already-established brand identity that was created by the video games. None of them could even flirt with crossing the 50% mark on Rotten Tomatoes until Tomb Raider came out in 2018. By then though, it stopped mattering whether or not video game movies could be passable, let alone good.
This is because around 2010, video games could finally eclipse film in terms of visual and auditory fidelity. Uncharted 2 sold itself on how cinematic it looked and felt. The Final Fantasy VII Remake looks better than Advent Children ever did. Hideo Kojima is straight up out here using Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen as actual characters in his games. Ever since developers began to master the Cell processing of the PS3, the entire gaming medium has gotten to have their cake and eat it, delivering fully voiced, well written, and well acted experiences to gamers, that they get to interact with in a way that is uniquely theirs, feeling the weight of each victory they earn, rather than passively watching from the sidelines.
Whether or not Mortal Kombat is any good is entirely beside the point, now gamers can leave the theater and actually say “eh, the game was better.” And they’ll be right in the same way that readers are right when they say the book was better.