Despite the odd exception – the low-rent Resident Evil movie series has had surprising legs – the cinematic landscape is littered with a host of bad-to-dire video games adaptations. One of the earliest attempts which failed miserably was 1993’s Super Mario Bros. Even today, the film remains a textbook example of what not to do when trying to construct a credible feature-length narrative on the foundations of a simplistic platform game.
Effectively killing the filmmaking career of then husband and wife directorial team Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel – still best known for their mid-eighties faux digital TV character Max Headroom – the duo’s approach of throwing everything at the screen and seeing what sticks resulted in a bloated, confusing mess of a film which even hardcore gamers stayed away from. Morton and Jankel rewrote the initial, kiddie-centric script and came up with the idea of a parallel universe being created millions of years back, following a meteorite hitting the earth. The eponymous sibling plumbers (played by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo) are pulled into that alternative reality, which is populated with humans who have evolved from dinosaur rather than ape.
The infamously chaotic production was almost shipwrecked after the studio rejected the new script – penned by beloved UK sitcom writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais – a mere ten days before principal photography was due to begin. Behind-the-scenes conflict and the scramble to come up with a workable screenplay is apparent everywhere. Very little makes sense and chunks of garbled exposition and some truly terrible ADR are deployed wherever possible to smooth over the gaping plot holes and add some semblance of story development. Even the potentially subversive pleasure of seeing renowned hellraiser and sixties cinematic rebel Dennis Hopper – as fascist ruler, King Koopa – never really materialises.
There’s an attempt at least to imbue the pixelated characters with three-dimensional personas, particularly in switching the relationship dynamic between the brothers and making Mario the paternal-like figure to the younger hot-headed Luigi. Also, the cyberpunk production design of ‘Dinohattan’ – courtesy of Blade Runner art director David L. Snyder – has a certain eye-catching quality to it, a kooky and garish vision.
But in remodelling the original material, there’s very little from the game which survives. A common issue with the video game adaptation, it seems attempting a faithful translation of the source material clashes with the need to contract a satisfying narrative to hang all those game beats on. Super Mario Bros. seeks to emulate that energetic, fast-paced style of the game-playing experience through busy slapstick-heavy set pieces, but in the end – like so many failed video game movies – it’s akin to running out of money at the local arcade and having to watch someone else playing the game, and badly.