Film Torments: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
THIS TIME on Torments, Dan looks at a sequel to a video game movie.
There’s a visceral pleasure to be found in playing fighting games. Even beyond the competitive aspect and deep mechanics, chaining combos together on an unsuspecting opponent’s face remains one of the most satisfying feelings in any form of media. Mortal Kombat, one of the early pioneers of the genre, quickly became notorious among concerned parents and lawmakers for its emphasis on brutal violence and blood-spilling ‘Fatality’ finishing moves. It was the kind of controversy that created cash, however, and a film adaptation quickly followed in 1995.
For all the satisfaction that fighting games engender, they usually don’t have much in the way of plot. Like the gloriously cheesy Street Fighter adaptation from the year prior, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat largely eschews the narrative of its source material to focus on slick action sequences and scenery-chewing performances played to the broadest effect. It is stupid, loud and often obnoxious, but it’s also a daft blast of self-aware fun complete with a kick-ass techno-heavy theme song and Christopher Lambert. It’s as good as a video game movie will probably ever get.
The sequel, subtitled Annihilation, is stupid, loud and often obnoxious. Despite costing almost double the amount of its predecessor ($30 million from $18 million), it looks significantly cheaper. The cast is almost entirely replaced and, despite beginning with its predecessor’s ending, it feels like there’s no continuity whatsoever between the two. Directorial duties are taken over by John R. Leonetti, who’s recently had something of a resurgence with Annabelle, Wolves at the Door and, most hilariously, the execrable Wish Upon. (You will believe that one can step down from Paul W.S. Anderson, renowned auteur of the Resident Evil films.)
The result is a shockingly incompetent sequel that derails the charming momentum of the original in favour of laughable dialogue, worse CGI and an endless parade of slow-mo somersaults. The (ironically) controversial bloodlessness of the first film is also ramped up considerably, further preventing Annihilation from having anything to distinguish itself by. Moreover, the plot can be summarised in a single sentence: Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson) wants to conquer the world, and Liu Kang (Robin Shou) must stop him.
This is not to say that a cinematic adaptation of a fighting game needs to have a complicated narrative – if anything, I’d argue the opposite – but the story on display here is desperately pallid even by those standards. The scant threads that do remain are routinely superseded by floaty action sequences, where the camera seems unable to linger on a single shot for longer than a second. Even worse, entire fight scenes occur off-screen, like when the brainwashed Sindel (Musetta Vander) is somehow knocked unconscious and brought into frame by Jax (Lynn “Red” Williams) and Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess).
This cinematic ADD is mirrored everywhere else in the film. Shao Kahn – who, despite the hulking stature of Brian Thompson, is far from the terrifying nemesis of the games – lounges around in his pyjamas at home, sans his iconic skull mask, and barks out plummy orders at incrementally more useless henchmen. Liu Kang meets Nightwolf (Litefoot), Jade (Irina Pantaeva) and his indescribably embarrassing Animality in about five minutes. We zip from protagonists and locations at the drop of a hat, leaving the audience incapable of gaining their bearings. The cliched revelation that Raiden (James Remar, who is decidedly not Christopher Lambert) is Shao Kahn’s estranged brother has no time to sink in before we are whisked away to the final confrontation.
Then there’s the acting. Oh, lord, the acting. The performances run the whole gamut from gloriously hammy (Thompson’s Kahn) to glass-eyed boredom (Remar’s Raiden) to hysterically bad (Vander’s Sindel, who gives one of the greatest line deliveries ever put to film). This, at least, is the one consistently entertaining facet of Annihilation; with everything else being such a disorientating mess, the poor acting is constantly providing the audience with something to laugh at.
And laugh you will. Everything about Annihilation is laughable, from the sets to the camera work to the choreography to the acting, not a single aspect of the film is worthy of a theatrical release. It makes Xena: Warrior Princess look like Blade Runner 2049 – how this wasn’t pushed straight to video, I will never know. And yet, it did receive a wide cinematic release, to scathing reviews and diminishing box office returns, the latter of which is likely the main catalyst for why there still hasn’t been another Mortal Kombat film to this day, despite Robin Shou signing a three-picture deal.
Regardless – for many, Annihilation is one of the worst video game movies ever made, which may be the lowest bar I’ve ever cited since Torments began. It’s a stunningly inept disaster but, if schadenfreude is your thing, you’ll have an absolute blast watching it.