The movie series based on the hugely popular Mortal Kombat franchise is an interesting beast indeed. Across its two entries, it manages to represent both the best and the worst of what a movie adaptation of a video game is capable of. While the original was a turning point for video game movies, after the first few attempts there were major misses, the sequel encompassed everything that could not only go wrong with video game movies but movies in general.
To this day, people remain fond of the original Mortal Kombat movie—and rightfully so, as it's a fun fantasy/action romp with great fight scenes, impressive set design, and some surprisingly solid acting. The cast was an eclectic mix of Hollywood up-and-comers, established TV performers, international actors on the cusp of their American breakthrough, and even an industry legend. It was also cutting edge for its time as it featured an all-CG cast, at a time when that was still fairly rare. The film is considered by many to be the first major American movie to use the filmmaking technique known as "wire-fu" (predating The Matrix by four years).
As far as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, well... let's just say that movie is basically a case study in how to take a successful, beloved series and make just about every wrong step that can possibly be made in following it up. It's hard to even fathom how the seemingly simple task of doing Mortal Kombat again, only bigger and badder, could've gone so badly.
Either way, here is a look at what went into making a great MK movie—and a really, really bad one.
Bridgette Wilson became the source of many a teenage crush in the mid-1990s when she appeared in Last Action Hero, Billy Madison, and of course, as Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat.
Wilson actually lucked into her video game movie debut when another promising up-and-comer got cast first and had to drop out.
Though it's hard to picture her as an action hero, Cameron Diaz was actually cast as Sonya first and had even begun training for the role—which is when she broke her wrist, forcing filmmakers to re-cast her as the schedule was too tight to wait out her injury.
It was once assumed that it would be mostly teenagers who'd go see a video game movie—even one based on a game they technically shouldn't have been playing. So the studio insisted that Mortal Kombat be rated PG-13, which required a lot of creativity on the part of the filmmakers to stay within that rating but also have the kind of action that MK fans expected.
The solution? Clever cheats like having Sub-Zero get impaled with an icicle and then freezing over, which was technically a "fatality" but one that didn't have to involve any blood.
While the MK video games definitely embraced a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude about their over-the-top violence, the franchise seemed to take its lore fairly seriously, especially in the earlier installments.
So it might have seemed a bit jarring how many jokes and one-liners there were in the first MK movie.
In fact, the guy who wrote the movie found it jarring as well—he didn't write the movie to be funny. But the actors, especially Christopher Lambert and Linden Ashby, were encouraged to ad-lib and improvise, and the result was a lot of the movie's most memorable laughs.
While video game movies had already proven they could bring in A-listers for Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter, the truth is that most of them did it for the easy payday and/or to impress their kids.
This wasn't the case with Christopher Lambert, who was all-in on making Mortal Kombat.
Though his contract stated he didn't have to travel to Thailand and could film his parts elsewhere, he decided to go and film in Thailand anyway, paying his own travel expenses and not asking for more money. He even paid the tab for the wrap party.
The first Mortal Kombat movie was largely based on the first MK game, but Annihilation was through-and-through a movie adaptation of Mortal Kombat 3. And to their credit, they sure tried to include every single character from that game.
There's only so much time in a 95-minute movie, however, so some fighters were bound to get short-shifted. One such character was Sheeva, whose actress signed on with the promise of several major fight scenes but found her role cut down to almost nothing when Sheeva's four arms were deemed too costly of a special effect to feature prominently.
Say what you will about the lore of the Mortal Kombat games, but the developers kept it pretty consistent for much of the franchise's existence.
While video game movies rarely "count" in the universe of the games, the movie version of Kano led to a major change for the games' canon.
In the first game, Kano was meant to be Japanese-American, but after Trevor Goddard decided to play him as Australian in the movie, the developers liked his portrayal so much that they retconned Kano in the games to be Australian, which he has been ever since.
While his successor, Sheeva, was relegated to a glorified cameo in Annihilation, Goro was a major character and one of the big bads of the original Mortal Kombat. And it's perhaps because of the various issues in bringing him to life that Annihilation's producers didn't want to bother.
It is estimated that the Goro "puppet" cost a million dollars to create and run, needing as many as 16 puppeteers working simultaneously.
Worst of all, Goro was constantly malfunctioning and would stall production for hours at a time. But it was an impressive effect for 1996, so it was worth it.
One thing that is hard to deny about the first Mortal Kombat movie is how great of a job was done on casting. All of the characters are played by actors who are great fits and strike the right balance between playing the characters how we imagined them but also injecting their own unique spin.
Apparently, it took a lot of work to get there. Both Robin Shou and Bridgette Wilson talk about having to read for their respective parts seven or eight times, which both said is unusual for a film and way more than they'd ever done for any other movie.
There was quite a bit of buzz around the making of Mortal Kombat, as it was one of the biggest properties on the planet at the time—video game or otherwise. So the filming drew a lot of interested parties, including one "top gun" A-lister in particular.
The movie was filming near Tom Cruise's personal airplane hangar, so he decided to wander over and say hi.
But rather than be welcome tour the set, one particularly overzealous crew member instead shooed him away, not letting the Hollywood legend even so much as peek in on the action!
It stands to reason that a Mortal Kombat movie would have plenty of fighting. Obviously, it can't just be wall-to-wall action, but one thing that a viewer shouldn't walk away from the film with is a sense that they didn't get to see enough fight scenes.
However, that is exactly what a test audience told the producers when shown a rough cut of the film. They liked what they saw, but said it needed more fights. So the filmmakers went back and shot some, including the iconic battle between Johnny Cage and Scorpion. That amazing scene was an afterthought!
One does not simply say the words "Mortal Kombat." There is only one right way to vocalize that title, and that is to scream it in a deep voice, followed by a bass-heavy synth line that just makes you want to start uppercutting things.
The iconic Mortal Kombat theme song, whose exact title is "Techno Syndrome", is just one of many techno tracks on the soundtrack to the first MK movie, which has the distinction of being the first EDM album in history to go platinum. Take that, Skrillex!
Some actors are just born to play certain parts, and Michael Jai White seems like he was born to play Jax Briggs. He finally got that opportunity in the web-based MK series Mortal Kombat: Legacy, and we say "finally" because he almost played him in both of the MK movies.
Both times, he picked other, bigger roles.
For the first movie, he decided to star in Spawn instead. For Annihilation, he opted to play Mike Tyson in an HBO biopic. Honestly, we can't say we blame him for either one. Starring roles are starring roles.
By all accounts, Christopher Lambert was a joy to have on set in Mortal Kombat and brought a lot of his experience in making large-scale action epics to the production. Ironically, the part nearly went to one of his co-stars in the movie that made him famous in America.
Sean Connery, who starred in Highlander with Lambert, was originally considered to play Raiden.
Action movies and injuries go hand-in-hand. No matter how careful you are or how well-planned a stunt or fight sequence is, there is only so much that can be done to prevent bodily harm, and the actors in MK were banged up pretty badly.
Among the list of injuries the actors endured while just making the first movie are a dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, and internal bleeding. And that's on top of the actors like Cameron Diaz who got hurt just preparing for the movie!
For better or worse, Paul W.S. Anderson is synonymous with bringing video games to the big screen. After directing Mortal Kombat, he went on to direct the entire Resident Evil movie series. It's actually rather unusual that a single director stays with a franchise for that many installments, and as it turns out, that's Annihilation's fault.
Anderson passed on directing Annihilation, opting to direct Event Horizon instead. And he said he had so much regret over that decision that he vowed to see through any future franchise he started, which ended up being the RE series.
You might not know Ray Park by name, or even by face, but you have certainly seen his work. His breakthrough role was as Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, followed by playing Toad in the first X-Men movie and later playing the movie version of G.I. Joe's Snake Eyes.
The talented actor and stunt performer got his start in movies working on the MK franchise.
In addition to being Raiden's fight double, Park also played a Raptor and a Tarkatan in Annihilation.
If you've never been to Thailand, you probably don't know that it gets very, very hot there, especially in the more tropical locations. This is a fact that became all too apparent to the people who worked on Mortal Kombat, as the harsh temperatures made filming very difficult... even dangerous.
Many of the actors who worked on the movie not only talk about how hard the heat was to deal with, but they have stories of seeing extras in crowd scenes just collapse from heat exhaustion, and that it became such a common occurrence that people almost stopped even noticing.
There isn't much that we can say about Annihilation that isn't negative. But in the spirit of informativeness, we tried to come up with some facts about that movie that aren't directly related to how terrible it is.
Two of the actors in Annihilation had previously appeared in the original run of American Gladiators.
Deron McBee, who hammed it up in Annihilation as Motaro, was Malibu in Gladiators, while Jax actor Lynn Williams' gladiator moniker was Sabre. However, their time on the show didn't overlap—Malibu came and went in 1989, while Sabre didn't join until 1992.
Early on in Mortal Kombat, we are introduced to Johnny Cage by way of seeing him in action on the set of one of his films. During that scene, he has an exchange with a director who looks suspiciously like Steven Spielberg, and as it turns out, there is a reason for that beyond just a winking tribute.
Spielberg has often professed his love of gaming and has even dabbled in game development. And as an MK fan, he actually wanted to play that part in the movie himself. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts ended up preventing it.
There are fewer examples in movie history of a rising superstar cut short in his prime that are more tragic than the passing of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow, especially given that it was a complete freak accident that claimed his life.
Mortal Kombat was one of several high-profile movies that Brandon Lee was in talks to appear in before he was taken from us.
As fond as we are of Linden Ashby's portrayal of Johnny Cage, it's hard not to be curious about what Lee might've brought to the role had he gotten the chance to play it.
The only thing worse than a bad movie is a bad movie that is poorly made. It's as if they realized halfway through making Annihilation what a steaming pile it was going to be and just gave up on trying.
You could make an hour-long video just discussing all the production mistakes in Annihilation.
Perhaps the worst example is when the same shot is clearly used two separate times in the movie, and it's a shot that was already flawed for showing a crewmember's hand reaching into the frame. Which means the same mistake was missed in editing twice.
One of the advantages of having a bunch of characters that wear masks and monster make-up is that it's easy to swap in stunt and fight double and not have anyone really notice.
Apparently, this was utilized a lot in the making of both MK movies, with stunt performers being asked to do a lot more work than they normally would, with some eventually just being asked back for the sequel to play actual parts. It's not as if the dialogue in Annihilation needed a Julliard graduate to deliver it.
The studio put an extremely tight schedule on getting Annihilation finished, which definitely played a big part in why the movie is such a mess.
Because shooting time was so limited, Robin Shou says that he wasn't even able to film all of the necessary Liu Kang scenes because they were often being shot simultaneously. He claims he barely even participated in Liu Kang's big fight with Baraka, instead, a then-little-known martial artist named Tony Jaa was Shou's fight double for most of that scene.
Coincidentally, Jaa will star in Paul W.S. Anderson's 2019 adaptation of the video game Monster Hunter.
The island where much of Mortal Kombat was filmed could only be reached by boat, and it wasn't exactly a five-minute boat ride, either. The island was also lacking in most of the amenities of modern life, like running water.
Of course, no running water means no bathrooms.
Obviously, it wasn't realistic for people to hop in a boat and ride to the mainland every time they had to "do their business." According to the book Mortal Kombat: The Movie -- Behind The Scenes, makeshift bathrooms had to be constructed near the set--which basically just means glorified outhouses.
Thailand has a bit of reputation for being a place where someone can have a really good time. So if you're in Thailand filming a movie for a couple of months, you won't be lacking for ways to party it up while you're off the clock.
According to Bridgette Wilson, she was still a straitlaced young lady when she was making Mortal Kombat and went back to her hotel with her mom each day after filming. But, even though she doesn't go into specifics, she implies that her co-stars definitely made the most of their time in Thailand.