Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim: It’s funny to think, Ken, that when I initially suggested we watch Mortal Kombat: Annihilation for this column, it was solely because I still had MK11 on the brain. Little did I know that a new, big-budget, James Wan-produced Mortal Kombat movie would be announced days later. Obviously, this was the most fitting possible time to return to what is clearly the worst thing that has ever come out of the MK universe. And that’s including the completely broken Mortal Kombat 4, mind you.
Ken: Like you, Jim, I have played so much MK11 this past month that I shout “FINISH HIM!” when I overhear squabbles between coworkers at the office. And I agree that Mortal Kombat: Annihilation remains the crown jewel of badness in the franchise’s quarter century history, even in light of the live action TV show. I’ll add, too, that as I wrote almost exactly a year ago, Paul W.S. Anderson’s original Mortal Kombat movie remains one of if not still the best cinematic adaptations of a videogame. It all makes this entry so, so much more of a letdown. Jim, you need to admit this to our readers if it’s really true: Do you own this thing on DVD?
Jim: I do. Heaven help me, I do. But only for academic bad movie purposes.
To be honest, even though I’ve seen Annihilation before (it’s been years), it was still somewhat shocking to re-view it here and remember just how incredibly cheap it looks. I rewatched the original 1995 Mortal Kombat a few months ago, and my esteem for it couldn’t help but rise immensely. In my head, I always previously thought of the two films as peas in a pod. Going back to actually view them both, though, one can’t help but take away how solidly constructed and beautifully art directed the first film really is. The second looks like a bad student film in comparison.
Ken: I wrote down precisely the same thing, Jim. Like you, it’s been years and years since I used one of my five weekly free rentals as a Blockbuster employee to watch Annihilation. It absolutely falls apart in comparison to the first film, my personal bias be damned. To date myself even further, Mortal Kombat was the first movie my mom dropped me off at the theater to see unattended. People loved this thing. The ticket-taker un-ironically told me and my younger brother to “Enjoy the battle!” It was all anybody talked about at school for like a month. Annihilation is comparatively just embarrassing and so, so poorly made on every level.
We’d better get on with it before the fight timer runs out, though, so why don’t you set the stage for those of our readers who are unfamiliar?
Jim: Well, if you’re reading this, you probably know the story of Mortal Kombat, right? Earthrealm’s mightiest warriors must fight those from the hellscape that is Outworld every so often, in order to keep our world safe. 1995’s Mortal Kombat ends with Brucesploitation hero character Liu Kang winning the Mortal Kombat tournament, supposedly keeping Earth safe for another generation. But not so fast! The evil emperor of Outworld, Shao Kahn, has decided to find a way to cheat the Elder Gods’ system, and invades Earth in defiance of the rules. All of this is implied in the ending to the original Mortal Kombat and then thoroughly botched in Annihilation’s godawful opening scene…
...Wherein it quickly becomes apparent that every single character has been recast, except for Liu Kang and Kitana.
Ken: Here is where we must give a proper shout out to Hong Kong-born actor and actual Wu Shu practitioner Robin Shou, whose competent stunt work and outrageously fabulous mane ably served as the leading men of the first movie.
Jim: And to a lesser degree, this movie. But yes. He is a gorgeous man.
Ken: This is also a great time to remember that MK11 is one of the few times in the series’ history where characters whose names and origins are thoroughly Asian-influenced are actually portrayed by Asian actors. In that regard, Robin Shou is sadly an outlier. Anyway, the badness begins in earnest in this scene.
Jim: I would say the first moment when you truly know what you’re getting into is only a minute or so in, when they pan past all of Shao Kahn’s (Brian Thompson) generals and you see this face playing Motaro (Deron McBee), the sub-boss of MK3. They looked at this guy and thought, “Sure, this is fine.”
You’d be inclined to say, “There’s just no way this could possibly have been made to look cool,” but then you remember that the first film somehow made Goro look amazing.
Ken: The creature effects are really something, but so are basically all the FX in this movie. Everything looks like the worst green screen effect ever. Shao Khan’s forces just sort of rain out of the sky in the first scene. They seem to be composed mainly of shirtless, unarmed ninjas.
And right away, the writing here is also pretty atrocious. According to Shao Khan, the world was made in six days and will be unmade in six days. “And on the seventh day, mankind will rest … IN PEACE!” I had to pause it for a second to gently knead my temples.
Jim: His resurrected zombie queen, Sindel (Musetta Vander), also shows up and delivers one of the more famously bad line-readings in movie history.
Ken: Beyond just the bad dialogue, the scene is horrendously written, too. Liu Kang ‘n’ the Gang try to step to Shao Khan and immediately get rekt, with Johnny Cage taken hostage. Raiden (James Remar) then encases all of Khan’s generals in a lightning bubble and threatens to kill them unless Khan lets Cage go. Jim, I believe Sun Tzu once wrote that if you have the ability to trade one fighter for your enemy’s entire upper echelon, it’s probably a pretty good trade.
Jim: That’s because Sun Tzu was a pragmatist, and not a protagonist. Who are all required to be idiots.
Ken: Antagonists can be dumb too! Khan then kills Cage after Raiden offers himself in trade. It’s funny to consider that if Shao Khan had killed Raiden, our heroes would literally know nothing about anything. Raiden’s exposition is the only thing driving the plot here.
Jim: Shao Kahn’s Elder God father (who is very loosely implied to be MK villain Shinnok) certainly isn’t pleased that Kahn let Raiden survive. May I ask, by the way: What is it that makes Shao Kahn look so absurd and not-at-all threatening in this movie? They’re doing their best, but it just feels like there’s no way to make him look anything but ridiculous.
Ken: I’m inclined to say it’s his diminutive stature. I’d guess the guy is 5’ 8” tops, or at least he seems that from the staging. Shao Khan, the Mortal Kombat character who has been owning and mocking players as he separates them from their quarters, their dignity and their limbs in arcades across the world, is canonically at least eight feet tall. This actor is noticeably dwarfed by his father. I realize you aren’t going to get Game of Thrones’ Mountain or Magnus ver Magnusson or The Big Show for a role like this, but come on.
The face of a man who knows exactly how dumb his costume looks.
Jim: It doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to find an appropriate muscleman for the part. And that muscleman would probably deliver his lines with at least more of a genuine sense of malice than this guy, who seems to be trying to go vaguely “amateur thespian” with the character.
By the way: I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of how the world would react to the murder of Johnny Cage. Remember, the dude is an extremely famous movie star. How is this going to be covered in the Hollywood trade magazines? It would be like if Arnold Schwarzenegger had been murdered by ninjas in the height of his fame in the late ’80s or early ’90s. That’s going to get some news coverage.
Ken: One aspect of the newer MK games is that they provide a minimum of world context to this stuff. It is patently absurd that an army that looks like it consists of cheap medieval armor and, like, one guy who is a centaur could somehow threaten the sovereignty of our humble planet and the defense budget of, say, just France. Yet, the games manage to at least stage scenes that insist the threat is credible.
Jim: I thought it was hilarious how the “extermination squads” seemed cobbled together with whatever medieval weapons were available. Some of them look like Thugee cultists from Temple of Doom. Others are in full armor and look like Easterlings from The Lord of the Rings. It’s like they raided a studio wardrobe and grabbed every costume that was available.
Ken: Nothing in this movie seems connected or contiguous to anything. After this brief confrontation, Raiden and the rest all flee underground, where they can use a … geothermal hamster ball bullet train? ... to travel all over the world to wherever it is they need to be. Portals exist already, and Raiden is the god of thunder and can teleport, but I guess we needed this mass transit system. It’s at this point that everybody splits up and the fights begin to make zero sense.
Jim: At this point, the film just devolves into a series of unrelated fight scenes for the majority of its run. I honestly don’t want to talk about the plot much, because there’s very little to tell. Shao Kahn wants to merge the realms; the Earthrealm warriors want to stop him. What I find fascinating in retrospect is how Annihilation was crafted for literally no one except those who had played the games. The first Mortal Kombat goes out of its way to give you all the information you need on every character in it. It actually does that really well. Annihilation, on the other hand, is just completely packed with Kombatants, and many of them don’t even get their names mentioned. Seriously, fighters like Cyrax, Smoke and Mileena all show up for single scenes, are never named, are defeated, then disappear forever. Ditto for Sub-Zero and Scorpion, who are in a single scene before just peace-ing out for no apparent reason.
In Mortal Kombat, there are indeed one or two throwaway fights in the entire film, but for specific reasons. Liu Kang owns some rando, but it’s so we can watch Shang Tsung eat the guy’s soul. Some other guy bites it against Goro, but it’s so we establish the stakes without killing one of the only three main characters. Everybody else the other characters fight all get some build-up and the fights themselves follow some clear emotional beats. In this case, it’s some cosplayers walloping each other for a bit, with no earthly reason they should be fighting THIS PARTICULAR KOMBATANT at THIS PARTICULAR TIME. Why, Jim, is Mileena a different actress than Kitana (Talisa Soto)? Why are they never in the same scene together?? Mileena is only interesting as a character insofar as she is a sinister clone of Kitana. God damn it, Jim!!
Jim: Instead, she’s hanging out in the desert, looking like an evil take on the Pink Power ranger, ready to ambush Sonya (Sandra Hess). I don’t know, Ken. I don’t know. Let me ask you this, though: Which character gets the lamest overall presentation? Not counting the couple who are only mentioned and never seen, like Kabal and Stryker.
Ken: Oh, that would have to be longtime “Why on Earthrealm do they keep trying to make this guy a thing???” character Nightwolf. The best thing that can be said about him in this movie is that they bothered to cast Native American actor Litefoot. It doesn’t at all make the character any less incredibly insensitive.
Jim: His presence is responsible for one of my favorite moments, when lunkheaded Liu Kang meets him and says something like “if you are really Nightwolf…” moments after watching him TRANSFORM FROM A WOLF INTO A MAN. Like this man is going to reply, “Oh no, I’m just some other wolf guy.”
Ken: He gets the best line in the movie! After morphing back into a human he says to Liu Kang, “Like it? IT’S MY ANIMALITY.” Had 1997 but invented internet memes, Jim, we would still be seeing that text over all sorts of images today.
Jim: From my notes: “Is there any context wherein an action movie could repeatedly use the word ‘animality’ without it seeming ridiculous?”
Ken: This scene, Jim, this goddamn scene. Apparently the key to beating Shao Khan is to learn an animality. For those who haven’t played … was it MK2 or MK3? ... this is a finishing move from the game where you turned into your spirit animal and eviscerated your opponent. It belongs nowhere in canon. Liu Kang submits himself for Nightwolf’s training and Nightwolf just knocks his ass out. Liu Kang has a bad dream, which imparts nothing to him and then he wakes up.
And it’s snowing.
In fucking ARIZONA OR NEW MEXICO OR WHEREVER.
Jim: At least his concussion would go part of the way toward explaining why he’s then so easily tricked by Shao Kahn’s covert agent, Jade (Irina Pantaeva), who sneaks into the camp and is all like “Uh, I know the way to the bad guys, Liu Kang. Follow me.”
Ken: By this point, we should mention, Kitana has been captured, because female characters exist to be imperiled in this damn movie. Liu Kang and the crew eventually free her after some more completely disposable fights. Everybody thinks that the key to interrupting Shao Khan’s move on the Sudetenland is to, like, remind Sindel how much she loves Kitana. That’s apparently some bullshit, because Sindel and Jade both cackle to all the heroes that they’ve walked into a trap. I’m sure this shocks our readers. Raiden, meanwhile, says the Elder Gods must have lied to him about it and this is never brought up again. We also learn about the entirely unnecessary and unexplored layer that Raiden and Shao Khan are apparently brothers. And then we get funneled into the final konflict.
Jim: I really think that, ultimately, Raiden is my pick in this film for the lamest depiction of any of these characters. I almost wanted to go with Cyrax, who looks rather like R.O.T.O.R., if you strapped a bunch of yellow snowmobiling gear to him, but Raiden is such a profound downgrade in this film that it just hurts. To go from the suave cool of the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert, to …James Remar… you just lose so much. And when he cuts his hair short? Dude looks like some random middle-aged guy they picked up at the bus depot. They took the one thing that looked at all exotic about the character and did away with it, because these people are idiots.
You’re asking me to accept that THIS MAN is an ancient thunder god.
Ken: Every re-casting is a downgrade in this damn thing, and the characters who do return are given nothing to work with. Having accomplished nothing but some running around, our heroes realize that the only way to win is to just beat the shit out of Shao Khan, like they could’ve probably done in the first scene. I think you should describe the final battle setup here, sir.
Jim: To be honest, much of it has already fled my mind. It’s a blur of bad CGI and copy-pasted explosion effects. Some of the bad guys, like Sheeva, get chumped out instantly without ever having a fight scene. Jax fights and beats Motaro, learning that his human arms are for some reason stronger than his cybernetic arms. Sonya fights … Ermac? Is that even right? Does it matter? And Raiden, now mortal because the realms are merging, is killed by Shao Kahn. Leaving it up to our boy Liu Kang to save the day once again … animality style. Which is different, but similar, to ordering your burgers “animal style” at In-n-Out.
Ken: And boy howdy does he pull out that animality! He turns into some dragon thing that looks more like a werewolf. Shao Khan turns into King Ghidorah. They tangle for a bit. Both have wings, neither fly.
Jim: Flying is expensive. You can’t afford flying, any more than this film could afford a modern Harryhausen to do its stop-motion effects.
Ken: And then, Jim, for some fucking reason, the Elder Gods descend from the heavens, gently restrain Shinnok, and proclaim that they’ve revoked Shao Khan’s immortality and that he will now fight Liu Kang fair. Again, they lied to Raiden about stuff earlier, and no specific turn of events seems to change their minds about this.
Jim: I believe, if you were the screenwriter, you’d refer to the actions of the Elder Gods as “inscrutable.” As an audience member, you’d be more likely to use the term “bullshit.”
Ken: It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a movie with a literal actual deus ex machina. Liu Kang wins, of course, and Raiden is returned to life and made an Elder God. Sindel is released from her sinister evilness and her makeup is still on point. No love for poor Johnny Cage though, who’s still dead.
Jim: Sonya appears to be the only character who even notices that Johnny is dead throughout this movie.
Ken: Jim, by this point in the grand khronology of the MK series, there have been something like five or six portrayals of the events of MK3. This by far ranks as the worst, the laziest and the least faithful. This is where I ask what we’ve learned. I will say that I’ve learned that “putting in a bunch of stuff from the games” is absolutely no guarantee that you’re getting anything resembling a good or even basically fun game adaptation.
Jim: That’s the funny thing about Annihilation—in terms of the characters and their special moves, they really tried to insert as much gameplay stuff as they could. Cyrax has his green web thing. Shao Kahn’s doing glowing shoulder tackles. Sub-Zero (in his one scene) uses his ice projection of himself. But all of these things come off as contextless, throwaway references for the sake of references. And meanwhile, the actual FX work is so sublimely awful that it takes away any pleasure you’d get from seeing this madness portrayed on screen. Even something as simple as explosions look truly strange in this movie. There’s a bit where Sonya and Jax are leaping through the air away from an explosion—standard action movie stuff—and it looks as bad as I’ve ever seen in a film. And hell, we haven’t even mentioned Halloween Mask Baraka yet.
I’m in one scene for about 30 seconds, but maybe that’s a good thing!
What will really blow your mind, though, is that Annihilation somehow had a budget of almost twice the first film. How is this even possible?
Ken: That really does just prove that budget is no predictor of quality. Let’s try to be constructive, Jim. What do we hope to see from James Wan’s production? What do you, the discerning MK player, want to see out of an adaptation?
Jim: This film makes it clear that simply trying to jam in as many Kombatants as possible is not the key to success. They need to choose which ones they want to make into stars, and then give those characters enough attention and cool stuff to do that they come off as stars. I could also stand for not every fight scene to be accompanied by the same piece of indistinguishable techno music, but that’s just personal taste.
Ken: I will add that Wan’s film should presume no prior knowledge of Mortal Kombat on the part of the audience, but also shouldn’t just be an umpteenth re-tread of the events of the first game. I know that’s seemingly kontradictory advice, but either of those kourses of action would be bad ideas.
Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to it, quite earnestly. James Wan has shown he knows precisely how serious he should be taking some of the material he’s worked with most recently.
Jim: I’m not sure that anyone could make a studio action film this badly in the modern era, to be honest. The 1990s feels like the last time you could get away with something this unabashedly slapdash, and put it out in wide release. If he proves me wrong, though, it would make for an incredible installment in this column.
Ken: Will it be a klassic, or a katastrophe? The world waits with baited breath. Until next time, sir.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.