Courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment

May 3, 2021

Mortal Kombat Gets the “R” It Deserves

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The brand new Mortal Kombat movie has officially been released, debuting simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. The initial reviews are in, and the very least that can be said is that the movie wasn’t terrible, which is an exceptional rarity among video game movies. While Mortal Kombat was never going to wow critics, it seems to have achieved its goal of providing an enjoyable, gruesome, action-packed homage to one of gaming’s most storied franchises. Achieving a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 88 the day after release, the home-blockbuster seems to have succeeded in giving fans the big-budget, well-choreographed action film the series always seemed primed to spawn. After all, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

This is not the first, or even the second, Mortal Kombat film. Over two decades ago, two separate live action Mortal Kombat films were released. The second was a major critical and commercial flop (leading to a twenty-four year pause before they tried again), but the first was an unexpected success. 1995’s Mortal Kombat is still widely embraced by fans and has solidified itself as an essential nineties-cheese cult classic. However, despite how fun the original Mortal Kombat was and still is, it lacked the defining aspect that, to many fans, defines Mortal Kombat: gore.

Mortal Kombat is a household name because of its extreme displays of violence. The series is famous for its over-the-top, gratuitous celebrations of gore, going all the way back to the original arcade game. Mortal Kombat set itself apart from the dozens of other fighting games with its brutal fatalities — it’s hard to forget a game when it lets you explode your friend’s head with lightning or rip their spine from their body. Each punch was accentuated with a spurt of blood, and the effect of all this gore was amplified by Mortal Kombat’s use of digitized actors as the game’s sprites. Back when games were still constrained by technology to a more cartoony or pixelated art-style, Mortal Kombat was one of the first places in gaming where you could see realistic violence.

This created an issue when Mortal Kombat headed to home consoles. Family-friendly Nintendo famously opted to remove the blood and gore from the Super Nintendo port. Meanwhile, its competitors, Sega, chose to leave the violence — available through a cheat code in all its gory glory — in the Genesis version of the game. You can guess which version was more popular.

The gore was so extreme, Mortal Kombat was actually presented to the United States Congress during a hearing regarding violence in video games. Mortal Kombat, along with an ‘interactive movie’ called Night Trap, convinced Congress that if the gaming industry wouldn’t regulate itself, the government would. This led to the now familiar Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) system, meaning that Mortal Kombat’s legacy is now stamped on the front of every game box in the form of a letter-coded age rating. Which, in retrospect, is a bit funny.

While intense at the time, Mortal Kombat’s ‘violence’ seems a bit laughable now; a few drops of pixelated blood and some silly burning skeletons, that’s about it. Night Trap also did not age well in the controversy sphere — the scenes of ‘violence’ are downright goofy by today’s standards, with the re-release only garnering a T rating. Nowadays, massive gaming franchises depict the horrors of war or perverse monstrosities in graphic, realistic detail. The modern Mortal Kombat games are perfect examples, with each new game escalating the level of mutilation you can inflict on your virtual foes. This ever accelerating cycle of increasing brutality persists because Mortal Kombat remains largely defined by its ability to push the boundaries of video game violence.

Which begs the question, why was the original Mortal Kombat movie rated PG-13? In a time where an on screen, explicit death could possibly earn an R rating, the 1995 classic bent over backwards to curb its violence to avoid an age cap. While it’s not violence-free — the movie still has audible neck snaps and people being impaled on spikes — the gore is tame even when compared to the 1992 original. The reason for this is obvious, of course: Mortal Kombat was extremely popular with kids and teenagers, and the filmmakers knew that an R rating would be commercially devastating. Yet, like a Super Nintendo copy of Mortal Kombat, the toned down violence means an essential part of Mortal Kombat’s identity has been stripped from the movie.

So when it was announced the new Mortal Kombat movie was being designed with an R rating in mind, fans rejoiced. Finally, players were able to see well-loved characters fight uncensored on the big screen (or, more likely, streamed to their living room). With every splash of blood or gruesome iconic move performed, it feels as if the true legacy of Mortal Kombat is finally being respected.

Fans of the Mortal Kombat series, or fans of fantasy action, will find Mortal Kombat to be an enjoyable distraction, well worth the time if you have access to an HBO Max account. With gore galore, Mortal Kombat wears its R rating like a badge of honor, knowing it is correcting a twenty-five year old disservice to one of gaming’s oldest and most storied franchises.

Caden DeWitz is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at cjd263@cornell.edu.