Friday Wrap-Up

This was something I said I wanted to do more regularly a while back and like comes naturally to people like me I promptly stopped doing it and immediately began hating myself. I knew it would happen almost the second I hit publish on that first Friday post and while I don’t regret stating the goal I do regret not following through. One because it sucks to make a promise and not come through and two because I actually legitimately enjoyed writing it.

So let’s give it another shot, shall we? I’ve missed a lot in the past month because of the aforementioned personality defect which I’ll wrestle with until I’m dead so I’m not going to bother recapping it all. We’re going to start fresh and cover a few interesting things that happened more recently.

In past posts I’ve been pretty harsh on companies like Ubisoft for their myriad failures and gaffes so I wanted to take this opportunity after reading an interesting article over at Kotaku to give them some kudos. We’ve had plenty of examples of companies who instead of fixing their mistakes simply abandon them and move on to a new project without so much of an admission of guilt. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of great examples of game devs who are willing to stick around and fix what they broke. Bungie did so with the first Destiny and are in the process of voluntarily re-living that adventure with Destiny 2 for reasons that escape me and everyone else.

The Division was a good game that failed to deliver on its promises at launch, a story as old as time, song as old as… anyways, suffice it to say that it struggled along for quite a while. In a surprising move Ubisoft and Massive were unwilling to simply let the game languish and die so instead they persisted until with the final content update it felt like the game they’d promised from day one. This questionable financial move was validated with the return of scores of new and old players giving what should have been a dead title a new lease on life. Even more to their credit with the announcement of The Division 2 complete with extensive gameplay previews they still haven’t stopped giving people reasons to play the original game. New challenges and badges have been added in order to earn cosmetic items in Division 2. They’re being drip fed to the community as the release of the sequel gets closer. As someone who stopped playing a while back after finishing the game finally I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t considering going back to get these shields.

I have high hopes for The Division 2 and this only serves to bolster them as Ubisoft and Massive continue to prove that they stand by their promises while striving to learn from their mistakes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lets rewind several years and remember the somewhat hilarious disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. Recently it was revealed by an enterprising modder who was dead set on fixing the game that some of the more noticeable problems may have been caused by a typo. For anyone who has ever dabbled in any level of programming you can understand how much frustration a typo can cause you, only for most it isn’t to the tune of six figures and international ridicule.

If for nothing else it highlights just how delicate the development process can be and the kind of hell  these developers put themselves through with 80+ hour weeks in crunch time trying to get games finished. I can’t even imagine the amount of typos my code would be riddled with in that environment. In the case of this game it was one mistake among many but one of the few that was truly funny.

I came across this announcement about a game called Digimon Survive and 16-year old me has completely lost his shit especially since it was announced for the Switch which is exactly the right platform. I honestly don’t even remember much about Digimon in spite of watching the cartoon but I’m excited none the less to see how it turns out.

We. The Revolution is possibly one of the coolest game concepts I’ve seen in recent memory, either that or I have some kind of undocumented fetish for pixelated death after playing Domina for way too many hours. It doesn’t have a release date but I’ll be watching it closely.

I feel like this needs little or no explanation. It exists, yes I love it and if you don’t understand why, I can’t help you.

Young Justice Season 3 was announced which is fantastic! DC has had the market cornered on great animated content and its nice to see one of their best coming back.

Similarly the announcement that Clone Wars is finally going to get some closure has me once again anticipating a Star Wars release.

And Godzilla because, Godzilla.

Lastly I want to touch on the Shazaam! trailer that came out and say that I’m really happy to see that DC is attempting to loosen up a little bit and have some fun. It’s no secret that DC’s top superhero line-up is decidedly darker and more dour than their competition but playing into that has done them no favors so far. Their animated offerings have struck an impressive balance between being somber and funny but so far its eluded their DCEU outings except for brief moments here and there. And a somewhat ham-fisted attempt with the Flash in Justice League which was plagued with other issues. I’m not sure where the DCEU is going from here and if we’ll even see Shazaam team up with the rest of the Justice League but if for nothing else I hope this marks a new beginning for them. From here I’d definitely like to see them reintroduce Green Lantern who to date has been a conspicuously absent piece of the puzzle.

I think that’s it for now! What cool things did you come across recently? What things should I know about?

I hope you have a great weekend full of whatever it is you like to do or just some good old relaxation and doing nothing at all.

See you next week!

  • Non-Washable

Not Just Strange For The Sake Of It

I don’t think there are many people who would look back on 1995 and refer to it as a landmark year. Things happened, certainly, as they do every year and there are definitely things that made and are still making impacts all this time later but alas thirteen year old me was focusing on other things. Namely, TV.

You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking back and not remembering any real classic TV that debuted in 1995 with the most notable ones being Star Trek: Voyager, The Drew Carey Show and, Baywatch Nights? Pinky and the Brain may have been out that year as well. My parents loved Star Trek and we watched it regularly as a family so that was an instant hit but for the most part everything else sort of fell flat for me. Like many freshly minted teens in ’95 I had a voracious TV appetite and no access to it in my room so that meant if I couldn’t sleep or I simply wanted to watch more the only option was to sneak out to the living room after everyone had gone to sleep to see what was on.

Infomercials mostly, much to my chagrin.

At some point though I got lucky and something magical happened when I realized that after a bunch of the crappy infomercials there was a run of shows on that included Hercules the Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and, The Outer Limits. While Hercules and Xena will always have a special place in my heart as some of my all-time favorite cheesy adventures and acting this article isn’t going to focus on them. Rather on the strange misfit in that trio, The Outer Limits and what had me thinking about it again recently.

For me the only version of this show that I knew was the one that aired between 1995-2002 however it did exist prior to that in a short run during 1963-65. It’s more popular kindred show The Twilight Zone was just coming to a close at that time as it had aired between 1959-64. The Twilight Zone generally held to a more Fantasy-Horror theme where The Outer Limits skewed more towards Science Fiction which meant for me it was a perfect match. They both certainly strayed into each others chosen flavors but they primarily stayed in their own playgrounds.

Speculative
adjective
1. pertaining to, of the nature of, or characterized by speculation, contemplation, conjecture, or abstract reasoning: a speculative approach.

Over the course of my life I don’t think I’ve ever been a bigger Fantasy fan than I have Science Fiction but for no other reason than I simply enjoy the expansive nature of Sci-Fi.

Make sense? It didn’t to me, either.

It’s hard to put into words why one similar passion might necessitate winning out over another and I’ve long been loathe to name my “favorite” of anything much to the frustration of my friends. The fact is that for me it really depends on my mood, no one thing ever ranks as my all-time favorite regardless of what else may come along. Even the incredible tent-pole passions of my life like Star Wars, Star Trek, Dragonriders of Pern, Lord of the Rings and numerous others spend their time at numbers other than one as much as they do occupying that top spot. Like some sort of primal atavism they’re what I revert to when there is nothing to currently be consumed in the fire of my passion for new and exciting content.

Watching Amazon Prime’s Electric Dreams over the weekend, and by extension considering what I loved so much about The Outer Limits, I think it gave me some clarity. As I mentioned above Sci-Fi has this expansive quality to it where it takes bedrock principles of our daily reality and nudges at the boundaries to push us into new and exciting places or ways of thinking. What made me really appreciate the style and execution of these shows is how they explored big ideas in very small, personal and, relateable ways. Even though the vast majority of episodes shared no story, characters or common threads it was nearly impossible to not understand their plight and ride that feeling willingly to whatever bizarre destination was in store. As a young man with a fairly active imagination it was like taking a seat on a familiar carnival ride instead of the usual blind leap needed to immerse myself in a concept.

Fantasy for as much as I love it requires you to stand at a precipice of disbelief and leap armed with only the faith that the author has provided you with a soft spot to land so that you can get up and start exploring. Suspension of disbelief is a vital part of how we connect with these stories and worlds on anything more than a superficial level. This isn’t to say that Sci-Fi requires none of this in order to work but the type of speculative fiction present in these shows, and genre as a whole, has an almost seductive way of drawing you in. By the time things get truly weird you’ve barely noticed the transition and now you’re simply along for the ride. It’s pretty close to the exact reason that I appreciate the writing of Stephen King so much because many of his stories begin as you imagine many normal, average days do around the world. It takes the mundane and stretches it like taffy to sometimes laughable lengths but each step along the way is cemented in plausibility.

Fantasy will never make me look at my reality any differently, even for brief amounts of time, in the same way that Sci-Fi does, especially when presented in the style of The Outer Limits and Electric Dreams. Fantasy is like a bath that you immerse yourself in to lose any concept of your daily existence, to be transported to another world, to become another person entirely. It is an experience wholly removed from our own except in the most allegorical sense, something that can be ignored or acknowledged to the extent any individual chooses. Sci-Fi to me always feels like a more direct extrapolation where instead of fantasizing about living in a place that cant possibly exist, you are bidden to consider what small things would need to happen to bring us to this future.

Like in the oft repeated quote of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” watching this type of Sci-Fi seems like an exercise in the inverse of that idea. Instead of dwelling on things already past and how to avoid them in the future we look to what might be if only we could collectively clear a hurdle or two. Or in some cases fail to avoid the clear pitfalls before us. In this era of our existence we seem to constantly be on the precipice of some new wonderful, bizarre future and while we have yet to truly realize any of them the prospect is tantalizingly close. What The Outer Limits and Electric Dreams do for me is take our present reality on a walk through a maze of fun-house mirrors. Stopping occasionally to marvel at the warped and twisted caricature that stares back while trying to imagine what might have led us there and indeed what may lead us there if we aren’t careful.

While not all cautionary tales presented may have a basis in any possible future there are more than a few which seem less crazy today than when they first appeared on TV decades ago. A trend I suspect that will continue and actually accelerate as humanity stumbles onward into an increasingly muddy future. For example in the past decade we’ve started to have serious conversations on the governmental level about the regulation of AI development. A discussion most people viewed as an inevitability but just not one we’d have to address within our lifetimes, yet here we are.

It makes laughing at things like this a little harder and instead raises some questions we don’t have any easy answers to. It is sure fun to ponder though.

Many of the ideas and thought experiments posed are more philosophical in nature but that level of ambiguity often begs more consideration instead of less. It starts to become more about what we might do when it arrives and less about if. That is the conversation that holds my attention and its the one I enjoy having almost above all others. When I read or watch science fiction everything there seems within our reach if not for a few mathematical equations that elude our understanding. As much as I may want it with every fiber of my being I know I’ll never be able to conjure fire by sheer force of will. But conceivably before I’m dead I might be able to travel into space or visit the moon as an ordinary citizen of Earth.

So, what does this all this mean?

Honestly, I have no idea.

What I can tell you is that you should take some time and watch Electric Dreams then let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading!

  • Non-Washable

Games on the Silver Screen: Mortal Kombat

mortal-kombat-logo-B3759D730B-seeklogo.com

The above symbol for anyone who was around in the 90’s, even if they weren’t involved  in video games, should be pretty familiar. There is a rather storied history with this franchise including a series of court cases which led to the creation of the ESRB – Entertainment Software Rating Board. In spite of the controversy surrounding it the series went on to spawn more than twenty games and various movies as well as a smaller live-action series released on YouTube. In addition to that it’s also had a fairly successful comic book run which was going as recent as 2015. Many people may rightfully question how something as shallow as a fighting game could warrant so many retellings in story based mediums. Outside of the brutal and sometimes hilarious ways you can dispatch your opponents in the game there actually exists an impressively robust story explaining the games many characters. For the sake of some form of brevity I will spare you the lengthy version of that lore and give you the basic rundown from the game so we can compare to the eventual movie.

What You Need To Know

The universe of Mortal Kombat is made up of different “Realms” which are actually distinct planets instead of separate planes of existence. In the actual lore the number of realms is actually closer to 15-20 but for the sake of simplicity these are all we’re going to see in the movie.

  • Outworld – A purplish barren wasteland pockmarked by pools of acid, deserts and even the occasional lush forest it is the home of most of the series prominent antagonists. It is technically the amalgamation of a few different realms that Outworld’s Emperors have conquered, but thats for another time.
  • NetherrealmHell.
  • Earthrealm – Pretty much what you would think from the name. It’s the Earth realm, an Earth so close to our own that the distinction seems unnecessary. I guess they have more magic than we do, whatever.

The Mortal Kombat Tournament –

Mortal Kombat was set up by the Elder Gods of this universe after Outworld went on a conquering spree and became much too powerful for other realms to effectively stand up to them. The rules of the tournament however extend to any realm who wishes to invade another. Once a generation the two competing realms send their champions to a single elimination tournament to fight for supremacy. When there is only one left standing they are crowned champion until the next generation when the competition happens again. If one of the competing realms can attain ten straight victories then they may invade the losing realm.

Er, yeah. Try not to think about it too much, this is all based on a fighting game after all.

Who You Need To Know

So lets get to know our all-star cast who will be punching, kicking and, quipping their way to victory.

First up is the rather incredible introduction to our main villain, Shang Tsung.

Shang Tsung

Shang Tsung Wants You! To Join the Mortal Kombat Tournament.

On the left there we have the Outworld sorcerer and all-around soul sucker Shang Tsung portrayed by the incredible Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Shang Tsung in the name of Shao Kahn the Emperor of Outworld, who you’ll see only glimpses of, is on the brink of making Earthrealm yet another in a long line of conquered planets.

Our scowling villain and his champion Goro (Not the kid in red.) have managed to win nine consecutive tournaments against Earthrealm prior to the events of the movie and first game. Shang Tsung has set plans in motion to lure a couple unwitting participants to the tournament so he can secure a guaranteed tenth win. Earth stands on the brink of invasion and it’s up to our heroes to save the day.

First up is Liu Kang who was raised a Chinese Shaolin fighting monk specializing mainly in Jeet Kun Do and Kung Fu. Also he’s been having some restless nights recently.

Liu Kang

If you’re getting a strong Bruce Lee vibe don’t worry, it’s not just you.

Liu Kang, played by Robin Shou, was raised as a member of the White Lotus Society who trained fighters specifically to compete in Mortal Kombat for the defense of Earthrealm. In the movie Liu Kang left the monastery and moved to America as he didn’t believe in the legends and wanted his own life. The catalyst for him returning was due to the boy in red with Shang Tsung, his brother Chan Kang. Desperate to bring down the man responsible the journey would eventually land Liu Kang front and center at the tournament.

Next up is the no-shit taking law enforcement officer, Lieutenant Sonya Blade. In the movie she works special forces for an undisclosed agency and is introduced along with a brief interaction with her partner, Jax, another character from the game.

Sonya Blade

Lt. Sonya Blade, portrayed by Bridgette Wilson, is pursuing a criminal by the name of Kano (Also from the game) who is responsible for the murder of her previous partner. In the film Kano has been recruited by Shang Tsung to lure Sonya to the tournament grounds under the guise of fleeing justice. Once there she will have to enter the tournament representing Earthrealm for her shot at vengeance.

Note: I just want to note how hilariously awful the flashlight mounts for those shotguns are. Really props department, really? I too can stick a mag-light down some spray-painted PVC pipe and call it a day.

Finally our cast of heroes is rounded out by Johnny Cage, a highly trained and exceptionally skilled martial artist who is seeking for ways to prove his legitimacy on the world stage…

Johnny Cage

… Because in reality he’s an action movie star who is constantly accused of his skill on screen being all thanks to special effects and good editing. With his ego and reputation on the line Johnny Cage, portrayed by Linden Ashby, is eager for any chance to prove that he isn’t a pretender. Shang Tsung takes advantage of this by using his sorcerous powers to pose as Cage’s former mentor offering a chance to compete in a tournament that would remove all doubt of his true skill. Cage accepts and finally our three heroes are on a course to defend Earthrealm.

While more of a “hands off” participant in the tournament I do want to take a moment to introduce Raiden the Eternal God of Thunder who is the protector of Earthrealm.

Raiden

If he’s the protector of the realm then why isn’t he fighting for it? Simple answer is that Raiden, portrayed by Christopher Lambert, is more of the guy who enforces the rules but doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty of it. Instead he helps recruit the fighters who will do the actual defending. His movie role centers on convincing the three heroes that there is more going on than they understand or may believe. Once they’re on board Raiden is there to protect them from Shang Tsung’s scheming and help guide them through the tournament while they fight for Earthrealm’s survival.

NoteI wasn’t originally intending to include a gif of Raiden but honestly it’s one of the funniest reveals ever. Seeing the face of Christopher Lambert appear under that conical hat never ceases to make me laugh. Sorry, Highlander.

That’s the down and dirty set-up for Mortal Kombat the movie, now lets talk about how they did putting it all together.

The Review

First a quick rundown of the numbers –

Production Budget – $20m
Opening Weekend – $23m 
Domestic Gross – $70m 
International Gross – $51m 
Worldwide Gross – $122m 

 

If you’re like me those numbers were quite a shock because even as a fan of the franchise and having seen the movie when it released I remember it being cheesy and terrible. Admittedly a fun time but by no means a good movie. Those box office numbers are bordering on smash hit for the time, certainly a tidy profit. Even looking at it’s rankings on various records like New Line Cinema’s biggest opening weekends it sits at 27. For context this is the same company who produced the Lord of the Rings movies.
So how did this happen?

You’re kind of asking for trouble when you decide to take a fighting game and put it up in theaters as a feature length film. Not because a lack of lore fluff to work with but rather because the general mentality will lean towards action heavy and story light meaning no substance. Or someone will decide that they’ll be the ones to really show the mythology behind the game and make an unnecessarily narrative heavy feature that ends up being boring or worse, incomprehensible. Or both.

What strikes me as truly strange about Mortal Kombat is that Paul W.S. Anderson actually did neither of those things. The story is actually faithful within reason to the lore of the first game and any changes that were made were really only a result of having to flesh it out into actual dialogue and action. Some obvious limitations because of the PG-13 rating but a rated R movie based on a video game was going to exclude most of your potential audience so again reasonable changes to be made.

Just take a look at the trailer for this movie.

Seeing that again makes me want to go watch it and believe me I say that having already watched it several times putting together this review. In fact it’s playing on my other monitor as I write this. I’m actually amazed at how good that trailer is at doing everything it needed to for such a hard to market movie. It explains a story that has no right to make sense in such a short amount of time for people who don’t know what it is. It hits on every note, including cleverly used game audio, to energize gamers so they’ll be excited to go see it. It’s also got just enough Enter the Dragon vibes to garner attention from Kung Fu Genre fans who might see it on a lark.

In my initial post about video game inspired movies I made the argument that one of the major flaws is directors and writers feeling the need to put their own stamp on an already existing IP. This inability to put their ego aside undermines the appeal to the core audience who will pay to see this film based on nothing more than the title . If you piss them off then you’ve got little else to hang your hat on. Mortal Kombat cleared that hurdle with room to spare and took off running to the finish line.

Everything seems gravy so where did it fail?

For me the true stumbling blocks for this movie laid pretty solidly in the dialogue, acting, CGI and, some aesthetic choices.

In movies like these you expect a certain amount of cheese and camp when it comes to the actors or their dialogue and as such I don’t find a lot of fault with the actors themselves. At various points in the movie you can clearly see that they can act like normal human beings when they aren’t being forced to deliver stiff and unimaginative dialogue. Actors are often put in the uncomfortable position of knowing that what they’ve been given isn’t all that good while needing to simultaneously buy into the directors vision. At a certain level actors can wield more power on set to help shape the movie and hopefully help improve the quality by working as a team with the director and writers. I’m also sure that just by virtue of the kind of movie being made that the quality of things like the dialogue and overall acting weren’t super high on the priority list.

Even more unsurprising when you consider that Mortal Kombat was the fourth movie based on a video game being preceded by –

  • Super Mario Bros – 1993
  • Double Dragon – 1994
  • Street Fighter – 1994

I can’t really blame them for not having a lot of faith in the genre.

As far as the CGI goes I’m going to use what by now is probably a tired old metric but looking at the quality of special effects in this movie and then remembering Jurassic Park came out two years prior is painful. I certainly understand that they weren’t working with with the same budgets, in fact Jurassic Park had triple what Mortal Kombat did, but then why do what they did with Reptile?

They clearly had access to very talented set and costume designers so it makes the decision to include this questionable at best–

Reptile

When they probably could have designed an incredible costume with a few lizard like prosthesis for the actor that would have been much cheaper and looked much better. Additionally the insane animatronics to bring Goro to life make me question further how their version of Reptile ended up in the same movie. Obviously they wanted something that looked nothing like Sub-Zero or Scorpion and it’s hard to say that was the wrong impulse to follow in the moment without the benefit of hindsight. But given everything else they accomplished it seemed like such an avoidable misstep. Especially given that they just morph him into the much more familiar looking Reptile two-thirds of the way through.

Combined with CGI and aesthetic choices that brings me to Scorpion’s kunai-harpoon which for some bizarre reason they decided to make into an apparent symbiotic creature that lives inside his arm? This feels to me like the encroaching ego of the people in charge who can’t stop tweaking and improving on whats in front of them. I can almost hear the discussion –

“He has a harpoon, right?”

“Yeah, but thats boring. Anything we can do to punch it up?”

“Well, he’s called Scorpion so maybe he should have like a stinger?”

“Like a tail?”

“Nah like his harpoon is his scorpion stinger.”

“I like that, but it should be alive, like a creature. Be able to move on its own. And lives in his arm but comes out through his hand.”

“Uh, okay.”

I get the impulse and often have to fight allowing myself to do the same thing but hopefully continuing to talk about the concept helps others avoid the same pitfall.

Lastly on aesthetics I wanted to touch on sound design with the use of game audio and music sprinkled throughout the movie. Like I mentioned in my last post part of the appeal going to movies like this is the thrill of seeing and hearing your game come to life on the big screen. Part of that is transferring iconic action, dialogue and visuals accurately into the script in ways that don’t ask for the kudos when doing so. They should feel organic in their new setting and not stick out as the references that they are. In Mortal Kombat the first time we hear the games main theme outside of the opening credits is for a fight between our three heroes and a bunch of faceless goons. How much more impact would it have had underscoring the final conflict of the movie or one of the other major fights between named characters? They also use the phrase “Flawless Victory” a few times in painfully awkward ways and whats worse is they use it incorrectly, even outside of the context of the game.

“Flawless” implies that the victor made no mistakes during the course of the fight, that they emerged undamaged. In one case it’s used correctly but pointlessly as the defeated opponent was a faceless mook fighting Sub-Zero after which Shang Tsung basically looks into the camera and says it to the audience. Then Liu Kang says it after the final battle with Shang Tsung where he gets hit several times. I know it’s nit-picky but adaptations will live and die based on their accuracy to the source material, much of the audience were fans already for a reason. It might be controversial but I would go so far to say that accurate references and representation of the source material is almost more important than the quality for longtime fans.

I know we still get articles wondering if the latest movie based on a video game will “finally break the curse and be good” like the ones that popped up about Rampage. Overall though after going back and watching this movie, several times, I honestly have to say that I would probably recommend this movie to people who question whether or not a good one has ever been made. It is certainly a product of it’s time and I don’t think it rises above the style of Kung Fu movie its loosely based on but I can’t say that it is an objectively bad film either. It does what it set out to do in fine fashion, stayed true to the source material and gave fans a true silver screen adaptation of a video game they loved.

So a very, very belated congratulations to everyone involved. You did what is still largely considered to still be un-achieved even now by making a fantastic video game movie!

Flawless Victory

Y’know, mostly.

If you stuck around this far, thank you for reading! Took a lot longer than I thought it would to put this together but I like the result. Learned a lot about video capturing, editing, FX and a bunch of other things. Let me know what you did and didn’t like as it’ll help me decide how to improve and how much work I should put into these in the future!

Also feel free to let me know if there is a specific movie you’d like me to do next!

I’ll be back soon.

  • Non-Washable