Sunday, April 25, 2021

Movie Review: Mortal Kombat

The 2021 Mortal Kombat movie is the movie they should have made in 1995. Swear to God, this movie would have seemed awesome twenty-six years ago. I know we all have fond memories of the campy, cheesy, stupid, bloodless flick that dropped back then, but nostalgia's doing that movie a lot of favors. What the 90's needed was a campy, cheesy, stupid flick with blood, and now... here it is, a few decades late.

Is it too late? Maybe. Probably. Depends how generous you're feeling.

This is... it's fine. Not good, mind you, but fine. The movie does a solid job adapting the core of the game and a passable job assembling that into a format resembling an actual movie. Mostly passable. Sort of passable. It comes a lot closer than most video game adaptations, anyway. But structurally, this is still more like a fighting game than a movie. Was that intentional? Probably. Was it advisable? Probably not.

I'm tempted to say this is likely the best version of this premise we could have hoped for on the big screen, but the truth is a version of this with interesting character dynamics wouldn't have been all that difficult. I'm not saying we needed awards-caliber writing, but the reason, say, Infinity War works without much of a story is that the banter is fun and the relationships are engaging. Here, it's mostly just filler and exposition between fights. Only a few characters have relationships to each other, and those are clich├ęs. When the most compelling character is the video game equivalent of Captain Boomerang, you've got a problem.

That's the larger issue, at least as far as this thing's entertainment value is concerned. There are some pretty big structural and pacing issues, but to be frank, I think issues like those come off as more academic than fatal flaws in movies like these. They're the kinds of things that don't bother you too much unless you stop and think about them, but whether it was wise or not...

...I stopped and thought about them. So, uh, spoilers.

The weirdest - I don't think "flaw" is even the right word - choice, maybe? The weirdest choice the movie makes, in my opinion, is to not actually do the Mortal Kombat tournament. The tournament is supposed to happen, the lore from the games (or at least my limited understanding of that lore) is largely intact, the main characters spend the first few acts getting ready for said tournament, but instead they just kind of fight all the bad guys one-on-one outside of the tournament. Then no one really explains if the tournament is postponed, if the villains forfeit, if it's still going to happen in a couple days with new or resurrected bad guys, or what's going on.

And here's the thing: the one-on-one fights were shot in a way they could have been the tournament, they just weren't. Like, we weren't watching the tournament on a technicality. My running theory is they originally were part of the "official" tournament, then the movie got recut and streamlined into it's current form. Maybe they couldn't swing some reshoots because of COVID, and this was the workaround?

I also have my suspicions about the "big fight" at the end, mainly because it *wasn't* really a big fight, at all. The movie's climax is a fight between one ninja fighting two ninjas, and the two ninjas win, because [checks notes] there are two of them.

Meanwhile, the main character takes out Goro at the end of the second act. Given how much of the Goro fight is CG, I can't help but wonder if maybe the order of those fights got flipped at some point. Because, as it is, there really isn't a "boss fight" at the end of the movie, which feels wrong for a fighting game adaptation.

Again, none of this is necessarily a major problem; just... weird. The movie feels like it doesn't quite click together, but... does it have to? The fights are pretty good, and that's the selling point of this thing, anyway. I wish they'd held back more from the trailers, but the "good parts" are indeed pretty good. Does a Mortal Kombat movie need to be a coherent, well-made film, or is "people fighting" enough? I'll leave that to philosophers to decide.

Let's talk gore. Yes, there's blood and occasionally guts and brains and stuff, but honestly... I thought there'd be a lot more. This isn't a complaint - I'm squeamish, so I didn't miss it - but it's notable the fatalities in the movie are significantly less gruesome than some I've seen in the more recent games. Again, not a complaint: I was just a little surprised.

Along with Detective Pikachu, this is easily one of the best video game movies I've ever seen, but if that's not damning with faint praise, I don't know what is. I can't imagine spending additional money to see this on a big screen, but if you're already paying for HBO Max... hey, it's right there. That's certainly how I watched it. Not sure this qualifies as a recommendation, but I suppose you need to ask yourself how bored you are.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

I think I've said some version of this every time I've reviewed an installment in this franchise: when the biggest complaint people have about a monster movie is the human characters or the plot or the logic or literally anything other than the monsters... take a bow - you did your job. I hope this won't be read as being synonymous with "turn off your brain" or some kind of attack against people who aren't satisfied with a big, silly adventure movie about a giant ape and a radioactive dragon punching each other - that's not it at all. It's simply an acknowledgement that these movies first and foremost exist to spotlight the monsters, and if they fail to do so, every review in existence is going to harp on that fact.

And, once again, Legendary knocked this out of the park, at least as far as those monsters are concerned. Kong and Godzilla are awesome, as is the "Hollow Earth" we finally get to see. And that other thing they kept secret (but that was kind of in the trailer, anyway)... yeah, that's awesome, too. The movie is visually inventive, exciting, and - above all - about as fun as they come.

But, yes, if you care, the plot is about as dumb as a rock.

I'm honestly not sure that's fair. A more accurate statement might be the film sacrifices story and logic for pace, and if anything I'd say that's a smart decision in this case. But if you want to pick apart the logic of who manages to go where and when, you'll have an easy time doing so. Even suspending disbelief around things like Hollow Earth leave you scratching your head around geography and geometry. It's pretty obvious when the movie just skips over explanations or causality to get back to fights and destruction. I know that's deal-breaker for some people... and that's fine. By now, you probably know whether spectacle and action are enough for you. If not, this probably isn't a genre you enjoy, and Godzilla vs. Kong won't change your mind.

For the rest of us... my God, this thing is great. It's absurd fantasy/adventure pitted against sci-fi destruction. It's silly and awesome and crazy. Like its predecessors, it's an absolute joy to watch. But you probably figured all that from the trailer. If you want to nitpick, there are some moments (particularly in the third act) where the movie starts looking more like a really expensive cartoon than live-action. Even then, it's still a *good* cartoon, so that's at most a minor criticism.

I don't want to go into too much detail about which visuals work best, because... well... the joy of watching a movie like this is discovering those moments for yourself. But I also don't want to cut the review off this soon, so I guess I have to talk about the human characters.

I'd argue the MonsterVerse is getting better in that department. The least interesting character from King of the Monsters is relegated to a minor role this time, and we're instead largely following kid adventurers who are invested in the outcome. This still doesn't quite gel into anything I'd call compelling, but it's not tedious, either, which is quite a bit better than par.

I feel for the writers of these movies. The stars are the monsters, not the people, but if you tried putting the monsters on camera for two hours straight, there wouldn't be any suspense or anticipation (also, it would almost certainly be cost-prohibitive). You need people in there to take up time, serve as the audience POV, and maybe (just maybe) add more than they detract. I don't think the humans in Godzilla vs. Kong quite get there, but they come close. Essentially, their presence is a wash, neither enhancing nor hurting the experience.

You can see them drawing from Stranger Things (hell, that was evident in King of the Monsters), which is probably the best path forward. Lean into it and have the human stuff just following a group of absurdly competent kids on an adventure in the middle of a kaiju attack. Make the kids likable enough, and you've got an interesting B-story to go along with the A-list monsters tearing up cities.

I want to stress that, in my opinion at least, these movies don't need to fix anything. The MonsterVerse films are great as is, and this one ranks in the top half. I have no idea if this franchise can keep going, but I really hope it will. These are delightful, fun films that deliver everything they promise and maybe a little more.