August 24 - August 30, 1995

B y  Z a c h a r y  W o o d r u f f


REMEMBER THE DAYS when videogames were novel and fresh? Even the simplest games held a phosphorescent fascination. Players spoke in hushed tones about "secret levels," dozens of guide books diagramming ways to win Pac Man were released, and children with home gaming systems suddenly had a lot of friends. Even me.

One of my most vivid memories of that era occurred one day when I was riding in a car past a friend's house. The friend spotted me, ran out the door and shouted, "I got Donkey Kong, I got Donkey Kong!" because he had just acquired the home version for his Atari 2600 system. The memory stuck because my dad had to teach me a lesson about not being a wet blanket after I responded to my friend by saying I'd heard the Atari 2600 version of Donkey Kong sucked. Little did my dad realize I would eventually get paid to be a wet blanket writing film reviews.

Though I still don't know what a donkey kong is (does anybody?), I do know one thing: Movies ruined video games. First Disney released Tron--a neat movie, but a lousy arcade game with an unruly joystick. Then came Krull, another film designed to be cross-marketed to videogamers, and it was even worse.

Yet these games did well, and before you knew it every kid-oriented movie had a videogame counterpart. Star Wars games came out which costed 50 cents instead of a quarter, and nobody complained because hey, it's Star Wars. Atari released hideous Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. home games. The world of MTV joined the fray with the exceptionally awful Journey videogame, which fans of the band Journey loved anyway, because they were nuts.

I eventually grew out of videogames, as high school cliques, teen alienation and hair had become vastly more diverting. But I recently walked into an arcade and was saddened to find that now most video games are nothing more than two-dimensional karate matches. Gone are games like Tempest and Q-Bert, which revolve around clever geometrical ideas. Now nearly every arcade game is based on punching and kicking. Or gunplay. Or other things that criminals do.

Obviously, these sorts of games provide a primal satisfaction, which is OK--I don't believe they promote violence any more than Pac Man promotes obesity. I have to confess to recently indulging in a karate-type home game called One Must Fall with a friend of mine, which I enjoy precisely because I can pummel him without repercussion. But the games themselves are horribly uninventive. I can't imagine any kid finding magic in them.

So as far as the movies spawned by these games are concerned...who needs 'em? Who needs, for example, to see Mortal Kombat?

Mortal Kombat consists of about a dozen fight scenes strung together by a comic-book plot about a tournament of champions from different dimensions. Each of the good guys has a motive that can be described by a brief phrase, while the bad guys are defined solely by special powers or bodily disfigurements. In other words, the filmmakers don't try very hard to expand upon the story of the video game. (Some might say that's a good thing.)

The movie is at its best when it doesn't take itself seriously, as in a memorable moment when Christopher Lambert, as a sort of violent male version of the Good Witch of the North, tells the good guys the fate of billions is at stake, then cackles--then apologizes for cackling. More often, though, the script straight-facedly doles out the usual solemn ideas about "facing your fears," and at one point somebody actually says, "The essence of Mortal Kombat is not about death but life," which is a lie.

Because the film provides nothing to care about other than a by-the-numbers battle of good and evil, the superb special effects and art direction have little impact beyond being eye candy. The fight scenes, though well-choreographed, rarely achieve much visceral appeal either. I suppose kids who are already wrapped up in Mortal Kombat might enjoy identifying the screen characters with their video counterparts, but the rest of the world can keep their quarters in their pockets.

If anything, Mortal Kombat's existence is good for a laugh. My friend noted that with its cheesy music, beautiful women and ugly men, the picture is a lot like a porno flick. Perhaps because of this absurd fact, or perhaps because of the catchiness of the techno song in which the characters' names are read off ("Scorpion....Reptile...Sub-Zero..."), for the past few months The Loft has been showing the Mortal Kombat trailer as a kitschy intro to some of the theater's more cultish films. That Loft.

The producers of Mortal Kombat have to be given some credit--they've made a good commercial for their game. But after sitting through this slick advertisement, you start to wonder if there aren't more interesting games they could be selling. This "battle of good and evil" stuff has become dull; how about a game where the object is to get good and evil to kiss and make up?

Or how about a Mortal Kombat-style game in which your character goes around beating up big-budget film producers? I'd probably start frequenting arcades again to play that one. And if my childhood friend ran out exclaiming he'd obtained the home version, I'd be more than happy to congratulate him.

Mortal Kombat is playing at Century Park (620-0750), De Anza Drive-In (745-2240) and El Dorado (745-6241) cinemas.

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August 24 - August 30, 1995

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