“Based on a video game.” Are there five words more reviled in the realm of cinema? Only two such films have topped 60% among Rotten Tomatoes critics while 11 of them have hit the 10% mark or lower. Not one has cracked the half-billion hallmark at the global box office. So few unlocked achievements, so many respawns. Oftentimes, the only thing less fun than watching someone else play video games is watching someone else make a video game movie. This month, we’ll find out if the latest Mortal Kombat film is boss level or a misfire along the lines of Leeroy Jenkins. In the meantime, Game On looks at some of the more interesting, inspiring or, yes, insufferable video-game movies. Good, bad, average. It’s all about the experience points.
By the early 1990s, Super Mario could seemingly do no wrong. The portly plumber had starred in five platform games from 1985 to 1990, culminating in Super Mario World, whose 20 million-plus sales total worldwide make it the best-selling Super Nintendo game of all-time. After dominating the video-game market, it only made sense to spread to other media, resulting in TV shows like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, to coincide with the video-game sequel of the same name. But the Mario machine simply wouldn’t stop there, and in 1993, he finally had a live-action Hollywood movie to his name: Super Mario Bros.
Being the first feature-length adaptation of a video game, the film obviously wasn’t made with a template in mind or genre restrictions of what a video-game movie could be. Lightmotive, the production company behind the project, went through several ideations with multiple Hollywood scribes, including a self-referential take from Harold Ramis and a script pass by Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow so similar to his Rain Man that it was dubbed Drain Man. Somehow, the project ended up in the creative control of Max Headroom creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. The duo would never work on another major theatrical project again after the overwhelming critical and financial failure that was Super Mario Bros.
The movie stars Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Italian-American brothers Mario and Luigi, respectively. Like their video-game counterparts, the pair work as plumbers but instead toil in modern-day Brooklyn as opposed to a fantasy world filled with brick blocks and shiny coins. After a meet-cute with archaeology student Daisy (Samantha Mathis), Luigi goes with her to a bone site under the Brooklyn Bridge only to find it being flooded by faulty water pipes. With Mario’s help, the plumbing pair fixes the leaks but, in the process, get knocked into an interdimensional wormhole that spits them into a strange city called Dinohattan.
It turns out the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years actually split the universe into two dimensions, creating a world where the ancient creatures spawned their own civilization. Somehow, Dinohattan is even more congested and overpopulated than its earthly analog, being run by the ruthlessly tyrannical President Koopa (Dennis Hopper). We find the portal was opened because Daisy, who was kidnapped and also transported to Dinohattan, wears a necklace with a fragment of the meteorite that will allow Koopa to reassemble the meteorite and merge the two worlds together. It’s up to the Mario brothers to navigate this strange parallel city and avoid Koopa’s Goomba henchmen to stop Earth from going down the tubes.
Though Super Mario Bros. is based on a hugely popular video-game franchise, it’s difficult to categorize the film as a “kids movie”. While the plot lifts the broad objective from the video games — to rescue the princess from the evil overlord and save the day — the road to get there is presented in stark contrast with the bright colors of the preeminent side-scroller. Even before we get to the fungus-covered town of Dinohattan, the inescapable humidity of summertime Manhattan is captured with similar oppressiveness to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. There’s a de-evolution machine that produces nightmarish images when one’s head is placed inside it and a mafia subplot bound to go right over the heads of children.
Speaking of heads, the enemy Goomba creatures are known in the video games for their mushroom-shaped heads and little feet. But in this movie, they have comically undersized dino heads atop ridiculously large frames. In the game, a stomp on the head will do them in but I wouldn’t even begin to know how to handle combat with these cinematic Goombas. The Mario brothers don’t seem to know, either, which is why they trick the Goombas into swaying and dancing to polka music whenever they encounter a group of the oversized subordinates. One of the Goombas is supposed to be a de-evolved version of Toad, who sports a harmonica rack and resembles a slightly creepier version of Michael Rooker. The only kid-friendly aspect of the creature design belongs to Yoshi, an amiable dinosaur aimed to give the species a more benevolent reputation two weeks before Speilberg shut all that down with Jurassic Park.
Though the production design of Dinohattan isn’t necessarily meant to impress the younger members of the audience, it remains one of the film’s most memorable artistic statements. Head art director David Snyder, who won an Academy Award for his work on Blade Runner, brings back the rain-drenched neon and murky alleyways of that neo-noir to his conception of a parallel version of downtown New York. He references other dystopian films, from the bureaucratic congestion of Brazil to the timeline-corrupted version of 1985 from Back to the Future Part II. Koopa rules over Dinohattan just as the super-wealthy incarnation of Biff Tannen presides over Hill Valley. Both characters play as veiled facsimiles of then-millionaire Donald Trump; incidentally, Koopa’s opening line has the megalomaniac referring to his city as a “pithole”.
The movie doesn’t feature any Triceratops but still remains inexplicably horny. Though Mathis isn’t particularly sexualized in an overt manner, nearly every male character besides the Mario brothers objectify Daisy even in brief exchanges with her; Koopa even unrolls his lizard tongue within a minute of meeting her. One sequence takes place in the Boom Boom Bar, a seedy nightclub where Mario retrieves the meteorite necklace with his teeth as it hangs off the buxom Big Bertha. In another scene, Koopa bathes in a tub of mud, commenting that it’s “clean and dirty at the same time” with an overly pleased look on his face.
No one exactly looks “in their element” in Super Mario Bros., but Hopper looks especially out of place in his villainous role. Not that he’s a stranger to antagonistic roles, but this was the same year he delivered a world-class monologue in True Romance and a year before he directed his seventh movie. Dozens and dozens of credits to his name and yet here he is with blonde cornrows and spiked leather. According to a 2010 interview with Conan O’Brien, Hopper confessed that he did the movie to impress his 6-year-old son but that it wasn’t even worth it to fulfill that goal. Upon rewatch, I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t yell “I’ll flame anything that moves!” when yielding a flamethrower during the film’s finale.
Despite the persistent mention of “de-evolution,” Mark Mothersbaugh doesn’t serve as the film’s composer (although he is responsible for the theme song for the Super Mario World TV series). Instead, the task fell to industry veteran Alan Silvestri, whose wacky and zany score feels ripped from a Hulk Hogan family comedy. It doesn’t implement any of Koji Kondo’s iconic video-game music except for the original 8-bit theme that plays over the opening credits. Understandably, a cover of the Was (Not Was) funk classic “Walk the Dinosaur”, credited to the Goombas feat. George Clinton, plays twice in the film.
While the genre-spawning Super Mario Bros. had a rough go of it at the box office and in the press, the vast majority of video-game movies have fallen victim to a similar fate. It wasn’t until 2019, which saw the release of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, that such a film would receive a positive Rotten Tomatoes score despite dozens of entries in the genre. Currently, Universal Pictures and Illumination are allegedly hard at work on a more faithful animated reboot of the Mario property with a tentative 2022 release. Like a frustrated gamer, Hollywood seems bent on finding a measure of success even if it means playing the same game over and over again.