Video games movie adaptations are all horrendous and an affront to all sense of human decency. This is not a revolutionary or profound appraisal of the filmic sub-genre; anyone who has ever had to sit through a Resident Evil or Uwe Boll film will arrive at this simple conclusion. Since 1993, there have been around 27 live-action video game films and all of them are varying levels of terrible. The problem with video game movies is that they are not only bad adaptations of the source material generally, but they are poorly directed, acted and written. These films fail as both adaptations and films.
There are numerous reasons why video game movies fail as adaptations and as films. Before looking at these reasons, there is a comparison to be made between video game movies and comic book movies. These two types of movies take their basis from two mediums that people refer to as things for children, and yet in the past decade comic book movies have gained traction as films that not only perform well at box office, but do well critically. Comic book movies have a trouble history full of some incredible highs and depressing lows (the Batman franchise contains examples of both). After a dead period between the late 90s and early 00s with many outright failures and middling adaptations (plenty from Marvel properties), the genre resurged with the Spider-Man franchise and eventually the juggernaut of the Batman reboot. These films lead to the eventual emergence of Marvel’s film division that smartly helmed their adaptations with modest yet respected directors, great actors and people who had love for the source material.
Despite the fact that these adaptations generally lose money and are reviled by the general public and gamers alike, there are plenty of adaptations in the works and more likely to be announced in the future. It is good and well to make sweeping generalizations about why these movies are awful. While citing the subpar directing, acting and writing in these films is a decent reason why these films are dreadful, there has to be something more to it and that is what this potential series of editorials intends to discover. By looking at video games movies in a depth one might dedicate to certain works of Shakespeare, it is possible to discover the specific reasons why these movies fail. There is no better place to start tackling the issue than by examining the movie that started the flood of these horrible pictures, 1993’s Super Mario Bros.
As Super Mario Bros. was the first video game movie, this confusing, frustrating and wildly schizophrenic film is a perfect place to start when trying to figure out what mistakes happen when adapting video games to the silver screen. Super Mario Bros. makes some glaring errors in bringing the mustachioed plumber to life that many video game films also make. It fails to realize that the genre that made the game so popular does not translate to screen, that trying to make the Mario brothers’ world realistic is missing the point of the game and that cramming in so many characters only weakens the focus on the main characters. These are broad strokes that are systematic problems with adapting video games for the screen, in addition to the other crazy nonsense, bad writing and acting that occur in the run time of Super Mario Bros.
Hollywood, Do Not Make Movie Adaptations of Platformers!
The Mario franchise is based off the titular Mario jumping on platforms, over gaps and on top of enemies while trying to reach the end of a level in order to arrive at a castle. Despite the power-ups that he receives during the game, Mario’s main power is a wild vertical leap. That action works really well as a core gameplay element in smartly designed levels. However, it does not translate at all to a film. This is painfully obvious in Super Mario Bros. as there is very little to any jumping in the movie until the third act. Then it feels like the filmmakers scrambled and said, “Hey, look this guy jumps in the game, so we gotta make him jump. How do we do that?”
Easy! Have him dress like a European tourist going to a nightclub in the early 90s and have a burly woman give him some mechanical sneakers. These “stompers” allow Mario and Luigi to jump crazy high in the air (with the use of a special capsule) and are like the best Reebok Pumps ever. While armed with “stompers” the brothers do jump slightly more, but still not as much as a viewer might expect for a movie based on the Mario Bros. games. Eventually, Mario and Luigi resort to using the shoe itself as a weapon to fight Koopa instead of actually jumping. It is like someone said, “Alright, let’s not get too crazy with the jumping, this movie still has to make sense!” It does not and it seems like the directors were more interested in the plumbing aspect of Mario because he does more wrench work in this movie than actual jumping.
The wrench work is so pervasive in the film that it leads to this gem of an exchange between Bob Hoskins and Johnny Legz:
Mario: “Treat your tools like a friend. Keep ‘em by ya. Never let ‘em down and they’re always at your side.”
Luigi: “Hey Mario, how come for every situation that can ever come up, you always got a saying about tools, huh?”
Mario: “I got ‘em from papa. He got ‘em from grandpapa.”
Treat your tools like a friend, if anyone does not live by these words then he/she is a moron because who knows when he/she might need to use a wrench to sabotage a heating system in a fungus infested fortress!
Time to Bring Mario to the Real World
Another mistake that happens frequently in video game movies is that the filmmakers try to take the surreal and sometimes unbelievable world in the game and try to bring it into the real world or make it more realistic. This is done to make the film appealing to the general public, but it usually backfires because the movie loses the charm that the original game world had and ends up being either confusing or bad. In the case of Super Mario Bros. this practice ends up being both bad and confusing.
The film starts with a weird narration from Bob Hoskins talking about the dinosaurs that existed in Brooklyn 65 million years ago and how awesome it was for them with no humans. The dinosaurs lived in this paradise until a meteor hit and wiped them all out, or so scientists would like the public to believe, but Hoskins has the inside track on what really happened. Instead of killing all the dinosaurs, the meteor shunted the Brooklyn dinosaurs into a parallel dimension where they evolved just like regular humans. Now they look like humans but have dinosaur DNA and live in a world similar to the human world. It makes total sense; the meteor popularly thought to cause the extinction of dinosaurs killed all of them except for a select few from Brooklyn that it sent to a parallel dimension.
Except it really does not make any sense, it seems like a long walk to place the Mario brothers in Brooklyn instead of having them existing in this “parallel world” in the first place. The writing plays up the whole “fish out of water” angle hard in the movie except there never is any satisfactory explanation for how the Koopa world got to where it is. The film never tries to give even the most basic explanation why this Koopa world looks like a mix between New York in the 70s, Blade Runner and a fetish club. It is like those parties in the Matrix except with more sweat and LSD. The only good thing about the movie is the background details. These details are fascinating. In one scene, there is a Koopa quarter theater with the marquee, “I was a teenage mammal – XXX”. That is something that should be elaborated upon rather than them setting up the real world struggles of Mario and Luigi and their shadow feud with Scapelli. Then there is all the bizarre Koopa propaganda about re-electing President Koopa even though he is clearly a dictator. It is an interesting choice to have Koopa depose the Mushroom king and instead of becoming King Koopa as in the game, choose the title of president. Then there is the nightclub culture and the inexplicable dances that have arisen in this world. The movie could have been more coherent and not a complete mess by simply focusing on the Koopa world setting. Mario and Luigi could be leaders of a resistance movement trying to end the dictatorship of President Koopa, and the writer could develop the culture and history of the world more. Instead, they went for a “parallel world”, so Luigi could say, “I got a feelin’ we‘re not in Brooklyn no more.”
Who Are All these People?
Super Mario Bros. is a perfect example of a video game movie trying to jam as many of the characters from the game’s franchise into one film. This comes at the expense of development of the main characters because there is not a whole lot of detail about Mario, Luigi or Koopa, the principle characters (the film does give plenty of detail about Daisy). Here like in other movies, it just seems like the writer introduced each of these characters just for the point of having them there. Sure, Toad is a busking folk singer who protests against Koopa and then is turned into a goomba who eventually gets set on fire for helping princess Daisy escape. Iggy and Spike are some of the mini-bosses from the game and play a big role as Koopa’s henchmen, but since neither them nor Koopa are lizards; can they really count as fan service? Then there is Big Bertha who is a burly woman who works as the bouncer at a nightclub and steals the piece of meteorite from the Mario brothers when they first arrive in Koopa world. Even though she is dressed in a red leather dress, it is hard to tell she is supposed to be the giant red fish from the underwater levels. The only fan service that makes sense is Yoshi, but he looks like just a random dinosaur. So if it were not for them saying his name and an awkward use of his long tongue, no one would really know. Then there are new characters written for the movie that are not references to a character from the franchise and that does not make sense either. Fan service does not really work when the world is changed to something more realistic and the characters are unrecognizable. Frankly, this is a question of who are these people and why would anyone care?
These three topics are simply a codification of mistakes that video games movies make in general, but are in no way a complete list of all the terrible and insane choices that Super Mario Bros. makes. So much crazy stuff happens in the movie like Koopa having a weird mud bath with his secretary Lena where he yells that he loves mud and at one point, it seems like he is having a wild mud orgasm. The pervasive obsession with evolution and de-evolution as a plot point. There is Mario’s pipe sonar location like a regular plumbing bat when chasing down Daisy during her kidnapping. Inexplicably, there are a bunch of dancing goombas in an elevator. Big Bertha calls Mario “pudgy buns” and gives him a giant smooch. Mario’s Brooklyn girlfriend offers to give Daisy free spray tans on a double date. There is a bombsled chase scene with a bunch of Brooklynites and one girl from Queens riding a mattress running from goombas riding another goomba. Finally, there are racist Japanese businessmen stereotypes who offer to make a game about Iggy and Spike to top off this offensive movie. This is not even the worst video game movie ever; the rabbit hole gets deeper and far more unsettling.
For another dissection of Super Mario Bros. check out the latest How Did This Get Made? With Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas on the Earwolf Podcast network. If you want to see Gaming Illustrated dissect more terrible video game movies, let us know.