Can one evaluate a screen adaptation of a play by Shakespeare without having read the text? Can one critique a film of The Magic Flute without a prior familiarity with Mozart's opera? Can one review the new movie Mortal Kombat without ever having played the video game on which it is based?
I may have started from behind the eight-ball with this garish action-fantasy, but I knew from the first moment of senseless, cartoonish, back-breaking violence that this slight, thoroughly disreputable movie was calling out my name. Mortal Kombat is not the kind of film which most critics take seriously – that is, if they deign to review it at all.
Among the many reasons for this sorry neglect, one stands out in this case. Perhaps the emptiest, least examined cliché of movie reviewing is the notion that any film with characters that an audience cannot care for (or somehow identify with) is automatically a failure. Yet there are many films – even art films like The City of Lost Children (1995) – where empathetic characterisation is secondary, or plainly irrelevant.
When it comes to a lowly, trashy number such as Mortal Kombat, the problem posed to reviewers in this regard is even more acute. Here the characters are simple, two-dimensional ciphers. They have looks and accents in place of psychologies and personalities. They are stereotypes moving within a world that is predictable, formulaic and brazenly 'unreal' at every point.
If you cannot embrace these characteristics as a priori conditions for a certain kind of popular movie, you might as well give up on the cinema altogether.
So, what does a movie based on a video game look and sound like? The plot is a simple countdown to a grand 'tournament' of martial arts battles – furious spectacles spiced up with supernatural transformations and apparitions. Each battle happens at a new 'level', i.e., in a different setting. Every action scene (and basically the film is nothing but a succession of action scenes) beats a helter-skelter path through some sort of maze: a set of passageways, obstacles, entry and exit points.
It is bizarre and sometimes rather invigorating experience to see the 'classical narratives' of popular culture stripped down to such bare, abstract, schematic bones. Only rare commentators in 'futurist' publications such as 21C or Wired have the prescience to grasp this unexpected rendezvous of contemporary multi-media production with high-modernist, avant-garde art – particularly the structuralist art of Marcel Duchamp, Alain Robbe-Grillet or Hollis Frampton.
One of the oddest and most pleasing side-effects of the pop structuralism of Mortal Kombat is a certain, laconic razing of all grand themes. Like many big-budget movies nowadays, this one has airy pretensions to mythic depth. Supposedly 'archetypal' characters spray references to destiny, selfhood, fear and desire with gay abandon.
But when destiny is simply a matter of reaching the next level and winning a duel, surely no one can take such mythic themes very seriously anymore.
Where, in one respect, Mortal Kombat is pretty minimalist in narrative terms, in another respect it is a wildly excessive, over-stuffed movie – and this, too, plays havoc with its mythological pretensions. Since Highlander (1986) – whose star Christopher Lambert shows up as a white-haired sage here – and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), fantasy-action movies have tended to throw in a bit of everything, regardless of whether the ingredients blend or not.
So traces of ancient myths from every known civilisation end up rubbing shoulders with citations of recent fads from rock music, fashion and the basest consumer culture. Ersatz myths that appear to derive purely from old, B-grade movie serials clash with portentous references to Biblical or Buddhist traditions. And multiculturalism runs riot: Asian, European, white-American and Afro-American values duke it out in a splendid free-for-all.
Personally, I would have to testify that this crazy melting pot of myths, traditions and nations is one of those enduring phenomena of pop culture which keep me going to the movies.
Naturally, despite these surprising affinities with avant-garde and intellectual concerns, Mortal Kombat is driven by more down-to-earth, showbiz aspirations. While, of course, it cannot be actually played like a video or computer game, it tries its best to incorporate and mimic various game-like, performative attributes.
Thus the film has a proliferation of pithy, verbal tags, such as "I am the chosen one", "flawless victory" and "your soul is mine" – exclamations that function like the little audio samples that punctuate the game of Mortal Kombat itself. More substantially, the film attempts to cultivate a certain sense of humour – based on clever asides and various winks to the viewing audience – that promotes a highly knowing, exhibitionistic, somewhat 'interactive' relation between screen and spectator.
It is true, but rarely recognised, that the most advanced and canny action-fantasy movies have been exploring this possibility for the past decade. Key films including James Cameron's Aliens (1986) and John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – the latter deeply influenced by contemporary trends in popular Hong Kong cinema – have acknowledged and toyed with their audiences in an intricate, brilliant fashion.
Next to their achievements, Mortal Kombat is rudimentary stuff – but it is still a curiosity item with a bracing entertainment value.
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© Adrian Martin January 1996