There is a new Mortal Kombat movie out on HBO Max, the streaming platform quickly making a name for itself as the service where big licensed blockbusters whose releases were jeopardized by COVID-19 go to die. It is a very bad film, despite what you may have read elsewhere—gaming blog Kotaku claims its opening 12 minutes constitute the author’s “favorite cinema moment of the year.” That is far too charitable.
This article was supposed to be a review of the film, but there simply isn’t anything else to say. So instead, I’d like to highlight some of the best films based on video games that you should watch instead of Mortal Kombat. It’s a fraught genre, to be sure, but it isn’t entirely worthless.
Super Mario Bros. (1993)
Let’s get this list’s most divisive entry out of the way immediately. The Super Mario Bros. movie featured an all-star cast including Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, along with some cutting edge special effects that still look pretty good today. But it had absolutely nothing in common with the video games—directors Robby Morton and Annabel Jenkel reimagined Nintendo’s Mushroom Kingdom as a gritty, cyberpunk metropolis à la Blade Runner, and introduced an incomprehensible plot centered around a conflict between primates and dinosaurs. Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of King Koopa—more commonly known as Bowser in the games—is slimy and decidedly Trumpian, a far cry from his depiction in the video games of a family-friendly Kaiju. The result is a film with a massive identity crisis—it simultaneously feels too beholden to the source material and not beholden enough. That said, Super Mario Bros. is still a massively enjoyable film if you go into it with tempered expectations, and it has a fervid cult following for good reason.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
Sonic the Hedgehog’s production is well-chronicled. The film’s teaser trailer made it look so unappealing, and Sonic’s original design was so wretched that the studio was eventually coerced into delaying the project. It mostly paid off in the end—unlike the lone live-action Mario movie, Sonic is an artful blend of real world and video game aesthetics. The performance from Jim Carrey as series’ antagonist Dr. Eggman is occasionally overpowering, but it’s nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Go for Sonic, stay for the Tails cameo.
Detective Pikachu (2019)
With Detective Pikachu, director Rob Letterman attempted what long seemed like an impossible feat—a live-action Pokemon movie. The creatures in this film are so arresting and meticulously rendered that the actual plot becomes a bit of an aside. It’s a buddy comedy featuring a young Pokemon trainer and a Pikachu who inexplicably speaks English. Like Sonic, Detective Pikachu suffers from having an immediately identifiable, marquee actor in a starring role—there are times when Ryan Reynolds sounds more like Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool as Pikachu than Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu, which is as obnoxious as it sounds. Don’t let that deter you if you haven’t seen it, though—at other points in the film, the writing soars, particularly during an uncharacteristically dark scene where Pokemon trainer Tim and Detective Pikachu interrogate Mr. Mime.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
More than anything else, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within seemed like game developer-cum-film studio Square flaunting their technological literacy. The Spirits Within is a rare example of a video game movie based on a Japanese property that was actually made by the game developer themselves, as opposed to being outsourced to a Western film studio. The film was even directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy game series. These visuals were groundbreaking at the time, though they leave a bit to be desired today. The first half of the movie is also tremendously boring, but its scale and precocity make it an easy inclusion here. The Spirits Within signaled the future of video game films—for better or worse—but in 2001 we just weren’t there yet.
Mortal Kombat (1995)
The new Mortal Kombat is bad. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation from 1997 is funny, but also mostly bad. The original film adaptation from 1995 is bad-good. You could tell the filmmakers and cast were high as hell off the momentum generated from Mortal Kombat’s initial success—it was still a legitimate cultural phenomenon at this point, after all. It’s one of those films where the terrible acting and special effects are elevated due to a totally misguided, Wiseau-esque enthusiasm. Not even the glacial pace and sawdust color palette can ruin it—it’s just a fun, terrible movie, and those aren’t too common in this day and age, clearly.