Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time hasn't managed to light to world on fire, and in this it's only repeating the performance of every other movie adapted from a video game - meaning that I don't actually have a historical "blockbuster" to look back to, just a lot of historical bombs. Therefore I decided to review one of the most infamous of that uniformly grim cohort. Incidentally, if I'd gone with the Sex and the City 2 comparison, I'd now be looking at George Cukor's sterling '30s comedy The Women, so you all have double the reason to hate me right now.
I had already selected this week's subject prior to the death on 30 May of Dennis Hopper, who here appears in one of his most universally-reviled roles. It is a peculiar tribute, but hopefully one that Hopper, ever the iconoclast, would have appreciated.
There was a beautiful time long ago, before Silent Hill and House of the Dead, before Resident Evil and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, before Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, when there was no such thing as a theatrical motion picture based upon a video game; and indeed a time when the very idea of a theatrical motion picture based upon a video game would have seemed like the ravings of a crazy person. In the 1980s, do not forget, there was no such thing as a game so larded up with cut-scenes that it was the next thing to a movie already; nor did the debate about whether games could be "art" exist then. Certainly, there was not one thing about video games that was respectable, not enough to catch Hollywood's eye - not that Hollywood ever cared much for respectability.
This halcyon world came to a rough end in the summer of 1993, when for no apparent goddamn reason, Hollywood Pictures (the mostly-defunct "keep this shit away from Disney" arm of the Walt Disney Company) paid for a motion picture based upon the plump Italian plumber who was already in 1993 the most iconic video game character in history, and remains so nearly two decades later: and so did the Video Game Movie come into being with the 28 May release of Super Mario Bros. which as the ad campaign helpfully pointed out, "[wasn't] no game, it was a live-action thrill ride." Half-true: it is surely not a game, for it is typically held that games are pleasurable.
Even by the standards of 8-bit video games, the Mario franchise wasn't exactly the most story-heavy property out there. A little man in overalls with a big mustache has to save the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom from a surly fire-breathing turtle with spikes. He does so by jumping on top of things and running. That is the description for virtually every single main-line Mario game made since 1985, up to and including his latest adventure, Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is by the way so awesome that it makes me want to cry tears of liquid diamonds every time I play it.
Amazingly, the mountain of rewrites that ended up as the shooting script for the Mario Bros. movie (the credited writers, who I'm sure wish they could take it back, were Parker Bennett, Terry Runte, and Ed Solomon) couldn't even get that much dense, sophisticated plotting right. Overalls? Check. Mustache? Check. Princess? Check, but she's one of those "unaware princesses in exile" sort of princesses. Mushroom Kingdom? The phrase is used, but maybe ironically, and there's not a damn thing mushroomy about it. Fire-breathing turtle with spikes? Ooh, sorry, but thanks for playing.
In general, the scenario for Super Mario Bros. feels rather like the writers had at one point or another heard several unrelated facts about the series, and put them together in a way that made some degree of sense: there's a princess, there's a woman named Daisy, you can go down pipes into a subterranean world, there's a little dinosaur with a long tongue named Yoshi, the villain is called King Koopa (though in the English versions of the games, the character had already been re-named Bowser). The slurry that came about has effectively no connection to the games beyond character names, therefore; but this isn't necessarily a problem, since a film that hewed tightly to the Mario ethos would be incomprehensible and repetitive. Still, you'd assume that anybody likely to seek out a movie called Super Mario Bros. would rightfully expect that it would have some meager connection to the game franchise, if only the colorful setting with its angry walking mushrooms and stupid turtles, and overall feeling of buoyancy.
The film we get is not at all that film, nor is it a film that does much of anything good on its own merits. Indeed, it is exactly as incomprehensible as a truer adaptation would have been, though it's not really repetitive. Like the weather, if you're unhappy, then you need wait only a few minutes for it too change, and then you will be angry that you waited, because the new situation is even worse. Here's what happens: 65 million years ago, a meteor hit the Earth and created a pocket universe which all the dinosaurs were forced into, permitting the rise of mammals. Eventually, those dinosaurs became evolved to the point where they looked exactly like human beings and could discern the existence of our reality, although this does not keep them from living in the center of a planet-wide desert in a city the size of Manhattan.
If you have any respect for your own brain, it was at the "dinosaurs evolved into humans" point that you started weeping. But it gets better, because the wicked President Koopa (Dennis Hopper, in his least-favorite performance of his own career) has in his possession a de-evolving ray that can turn koopa-humans back into stupid lizards, and once he breaks into our world, he'll use it to turn all the human-humans into monkeys, so he and his people can finally populate a whole planet and not a ghastly urban wasteland in the middle of a hellish desert. To do this, he needs to kidnap Daisy (Samantha Mathis), the daughter of the missing king, who was spirited to our Earth 20 years ago (that is, 1973) and raised in secrecy. Only the plucky Brooklyn plumber Mario Mario (Bob Hoskins, in his least-favorite performance of his career) and his slick younger brother Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo - note that neither he nor Hoskins are Italian, or are remotely credible as brothers for more than the time it takes to glance at the poster) can save her.
For those who haven't seen it, trust me: I've made it seem a lot more straightforward than is actually the case, by first skipping over the draggy opening sequence in Brooklyn which establishes precious damn little other than that these people exist, and ignoring completely the cavalcade of complicating incidents that befall the Mario brothers in the dinosaur city, and which all occur because one person first steals, and then returns without explanation, Daisy's MacGuffin necklace. Sometimes a terrible, overly-complex story seems to be the result of a writer with more ambition than talent; sometimes it just speaks of contempt for the audience; Super Mario Bros. belongs to perhaps the largest subset, the screenplay born from sheer exhaustion and indifference. Faced with a joyless task, those three men and whatever uncredited help they had simply slapped some arbitrary shit on the page, tossed in a healthy chunk of in-jokes, and shuffled off to die alone. Small wonder that the script was re-written almost constantly on set, with all the misery that situation promises.
Meanwhile, this hurtfully mediocre and un-motivated story eventually wound up in the hands of directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton and producers Jake Eberts and Roland Joffé. Yes, the Roland Joffé whose The Mission won the Palme d'Or. He's also rumoured to have substantially directed this movie without credit, not that he's gone to any great lengths to correct the historical record on that point.
The production team decided, somehow, that the right decision for a movie based on one of the most famously cartoony and bright video games of all time needed to be a dark, noirish movie set in a grim nightmare world heavily influenced by, naturally, Blade Runner, that movie that has so long served as the favorite reference point for designers that couldn't come up with any good ideas on their own. Though to be fair, the ugly weirdness of the dark city in Super Mario Bros. is one of the film's few distinctive qualities; all the more because of how well-served the production design is by the effectively moody cinematography from the always-reliable Dean Semler (who also, allegedly, directed parts of the movie). I do say "distinctive", and not "good", because when all is said and done, the design of Super Mario Bros. only adds to the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make a film much, much darker than the broad characterisations and loose slapstick of the movie seems to be driving at. It is, in effect, a kids' movie that the directors were trying to turn into a grown-up sci-fi adventure, and the results are impossibly atrocious. At best, Super Mario Bros. could only have been unendurably forgettable; but thanks to the out-of-place darkness of so much of the design, and the weird feints to realism - relative to the games, anyway - it has the epic feeling of Truly Wrong Filmmaking, where seemingly every new cut introduces some element that we deeply regret having watched.
Put it another way: this is a movie that had to be fun and is instead joyless to an almost calculated degree. You can see it plastered across Hopper's face, for instance, that the set was a living hell (Hoskins, who might very well have been the best possible choice to play Mario in 1993 - Danny DeVito is the other option - at least tries to put some zest into the proceedings, but with every other element of the movie working against him, his Mario ends up seeming less like a can-do hero and more like a deluded drunk). And of course, no movie whose title conjours up, to name just one example, the boppy tones of the most famous video game theme music in history, has the right to pull a bait-and-switch on us with the strangely miserable faux-science present from the first moments of the movie (a 16-bit cartoon about roughly-animated dinosaurs living large) and the dark fantasy noir of the bulk of the plot. It's not the worst video game movie, for it has a sort of baseline competency absent from the hypnotically campy Street Fighter (and that's leaving aside the films of Uwe Boll!). But in terms of how eagerly it befouls the source material in favor of a messy conglomeration of incompatible tones that has no natural audience whatsoever, and a plot full of lazy shortcuts and rookie mistakes, it is probably the most hurtful of all the movies in its notorious subgenre. Somehow, to my great confusion and shame, I've seen it four times now, and it never gets any easier.