And now, going along with our theme, a hive mind of bad video game movies for your viewing pleasure.
“A sprite pretending to be a plumber with a mustache runs across a screen to a castle and fights a dinosaur to rescue a princess”. A giddy fever dream, most definitely, but a film? Super Mario Bros and its sequels are to this day a cipher by which audiences confront video game pop culture, but they are elder statesmen now. So much so that it is difficult to conceptualize how fresh and alien this franchise was in the late 1980s, and how singular it was in its rejection of judiciousness or common courtesy. Today, video games bend over backwards to fill our heads with maturity, sense, and symmetry that varies from unearned to, well, slightly less unearned, and while a few prime selections rise out of the medium every now and then, it has a lost a touch of its new-fangled otherworldly singularity. Today, most games look to cinema to accrue the veneer of “respectability”. They are far less interested in the candy-coated, mechanized fluff they used to be, and they tend to function more or less like other mediums, conforming to film’s definition of narrative and the ensuing precedence for cohesion and order especially.
In this era, something about that little plumber and his dogged tenacity feels pure in a naïve, exciting way. Super Mario Bros has no higher aspirations than to sell its mechanics of running and jumping and to paint them into some of the finest modern pop-art you can imagine. It feels, in other words, like its own art form, something that could perhaps function in the repetitive sugary sweet bursts of cartoon-land, but not a work that is easily adaptable to any other form. The best way to tackle it, assuming one thinks the idea of making a movie out of Super Mario Bros would be a safe, harmless idea at all, would probably honestly be an avant-garde art piece or a non-narrative work of inspired nonsense, an experimental film. Super Mario Bros the film that actually exists is absolutely none of these things, but boy is it hard to notice. This is, without a doubt, one of the strangest, most highly presentational and production-design oriented maybe-blockbusters ever released by a major Hollywood company. It’s awful, yes, but who cares? With inspired madness like this, who can turn away?
Released in a second golden-age of blockbuster cinema’s wild years, Super Mario Bros is a beacon of a time after the corporate corpulence of the 1980s had crashed into the ground but before a new empire of mechanical, airless corporate corpulence would rise in its place in the late 1990s. Money in the early ’90s, in comparison, had a prismatic quality, permeating the cinematic air and finding its way into all sorts of absolutely bizarro productions that sound more like satires than the real-deal. It was something of a blockbuster wild west, where any idea could rob a bank, run away with the money, and be released before any one would notice that the idea was patently wheezing and wholly too adventurously strange for any safe would-be moneymaker to wield. The period was markedly similar to the early 1980s, another time of great shake-up in the film industry with the fall of the New Wave and the rise of Star Wars, another wild period of throwing anyone’s breakfast napkin visions at the screen and hoping a success came out before any one actually realized what functioned as a safe moneymaker for the public. When things fell again in the early ’90s, accompanied by another rise in independent cinema, something got into the air. People lost their minds, and corporations, aimlessly flailing to find the next big thing, pretty much funded anything that came their way, no matter how evil it turned out to be.
And in the early ’90s, video games were the new kids on the block. Hollywood wanted to get in the picture, no matter what it took, and when someone said “let’s turn that cuddly Mario thing into a dreary expressionist urban nightmare ruled over by Dennis Hopper”, the only comeback any one could come up with was “would you like your $48 million dollars in gold bars or cocaine?” Thus, Super Mario Bros was born anew, and reinvented into something that bears the closest resemblance to a suburban child’s expressive fantasy nightmare version of urban recession coaxed in the fires of their parents having told them to stay out of the city one too many times. Or maybe some Mid-Western production designer just heard that the Mario character was Italian, assumed he must live in New York, and then rented Escape from New York too many times to get an on-the-ground cinema verite depiction of what life in the city must be like.
It is not merely a hellish malformation of inner-city expressionism, however. That would be foolish. Rather, it is a hellish malformation of inner-city expressionism matched, of course, to a children’s film with insipid comedy and pandering, mugging acting from Hopper and its two stars Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo (as Mario Mario and Luigi Mario respectively, which is admittedly a neat little semi-surrealist critique of video game logic for you). Stars who, admittedly, are at their best when they are mugging (although Hoskins was a proper actor capable of sweaty, intense naturalism and tragedy in equal measure). But nonetheless, the completely off-the-wall intersection of set design that looks like a particularly haunted Terry Gilliam film, a very dour set design if you will, and some quintessentially early ’90s scriptwriting and dialogue is the sort of breathlessly, even transcendentally stupid storytelling someone might imagine as a parody of the idea of a Super Mario Bros film had this real film not already been made. It is a film of limitless stupidity matched to effort-filled, hard-hitting production detail, so much so that that the stupidity seeps in and turns any intelligence around the edges of the production into its own more toxic form of stupidity. The whole melding is oddly threatening in the end.
All of which says nothing about the barbaric way the story is given a punishingly, hurtingly literal treatment here. We watch the New York bros travel through an inter-dimensional portal in the city’s sewer system (I’ve often wondered what was down there, although a portal to Chris Christie’s house would be more appropriate all things considered), chasing after one orphaned college student Daisy (Samantha Mathis) who has fallen into the hole and become the prisoner of King Koopa (Dennis Hopper). Why it uses the names King Koopa and Daisy instead of Bowser and Princess Peach I do not know, but if we start taking a film like Super Mario Bros to task for such trivial travesties, the whole review will be non-sequiturs. Which would be fitting, actually, because the entire film plays like a mangled collection of scenes that have very little to do with each other in the first place, and don’t even have the good grace to make internal sense as individual scenes in the first place.
But messy story goes with the territory of “video game adaptation”. What is so amazing about this particular production is how they have managed to stay true to the story in such a mindlessly literal sense while still capturing absolutely nothing about the identity of the game in any meaningful way. It is a true textbook case of adaptation by way of one-sentence description, where the filmmakers were asked for a summary of the source material in one line and knew nothing else of it.
I suppose, if nothing else, this gives a certain freshness to the material, but only a freshness in the sense that, given the choice to make something trivial and mediocre, everyone went off the deep end and produced something truly conniving and insidious in its badness instead. One can prepare for a bad Mario movie, but the way they chose to translate this particular source to the screen defies expectation. It is amazing, in fact, that the film even frees up the space to unlock the mysteries of its badness. The gullible wrong-headedness of the dreary, funereal cinematography by Dean Semler (who can do good for the world but has the unfortunate tendency to not care) and the comically inappropriate production values – quite literally the ideal opposite of the video games and their jaunty recklessness – suck up all the space one has in the mind to do things like criticize in the first place. Nothing here pays any due diligence to decency whatsoever. This is not a movie; it is an acid trip. At least it had the good breeding to supply the drugs.
So how good is it really?: 1/5 (garbage, but the gross menagerie of tones takes the cake)
But how “good” is it?: 4.5/5 (wonderful, but the gross menagerie of tones takes the cake)