Every frame a painting
Every frame a painting Mortal Kombat (1995)

A new Mortal Kombat movie came out in theaters last week — sure, why not risk your lives and everyone else’s — and the film slithers out onto HBO Max on Friday of this week. But I recommend that you save yourself the time, heartache, and $14.99 a month, because MK was already adapted into its most perfect cinematic version it could be 25 years ago.

Directed by Paul Anderson (the Resident Evil director, not the Boogie Nights one), 1995’s Mortal Kombat (and the 1997 sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihiliation) have everything you could hope for: corny dialogue delivered as though the actors were coached phonetically through the script; lumpy CG monsters that move like their limbs can’t agree on which direction they’re headed; and a delirious plot that has something to do with aliens (???) who are also maybe gods (???) and also the French guy from Highlander.

It’s perfect. Don’t go out to the movies, stay home and watch clips on YouTube.

Here’s a little round-up of a few highlights. It won’t make sense.

I can’t really blame the 90s Mortal Kombat films for their badness — they were on the leading edge of a wave of game-to-film adaptations in the mid-90s, an early experiment testing the waters to see just what would be possible. The first one was preceded slightly by Double Dragon and Street Fighter, and followed by Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Doom. Of these, Resident Evil (directed by the same Paul Anderson) managed to eke out a bit of success. The others range from gleefully weird to gut-clenchingly bad.

What’s intriguing to me about all of these movies is the fine line they have to walk between faithfulness to the source and innovating for a different medium. The works must honor the original IP enough to be at least recognizable, and to tap into the fandom that’s likely to be interested. But the narrative beats that work in a game don’t translate to film, and early experiments like Mortal Kombat and, God help us, Super Mario Bros. seemed to feel it sufficient to simply graft game characters onto a traditional high-concept plot.

And that’s where so many of these adaptations misstep and fall into an abyss of so-bad-it’s-good — enjoyable to weirdos like you and me, but certainly not what the makers had in mind. Games are fun to play, movies are fun to watch, and what works in one feels out of place in the other. It’s essentially an extension of the FMV game experiment of around the same time, which yielded curiosities but not anything you’d call successful:

Support The Stranger

Anyway. The 90s Mortal Kombat movies are a delightful curiosity, a time capsule of what seemed like it could have been a new form of filmmaking. It’s an experiment that swung for the fences, and apparently the first one felt fresh enough at the time that both Siskel and Ebert liked it — or at least hated it less than they expected.

In the years since all those '90s projects flopped, Hollywood's big lesson, when it comes to game-to-movie adaptations, seems to be "best not to try." But not everyone's taken that lesson to heart. Paul Anderson directed the Monster Hunter game-to-movie that came out in December of 2020. It had a budget of around $60 million, and its opening weekend was under $3 million.