Mortal Kombat – Adapting a blockbuster video game franchise for film

Helmed by award-winning Australian commercial filmmaker Simon McQuoid, the explosive Mortal Kombat brings to life the intense action of the blockbuster video game franchise in all its brutal glory, pitting the all-time, fan-favorite champions against one another in the ultimate, no-holds-barred, gory battle that pushes them to their very limits. 

In Mortal Kombat, the visceral, high-octane global phenomenon is catapulted to the screen in an action adventure that finds Earthrealm turning to a team of untried warriors as it faces a decisive battle against enemies from Outworld.  The hero’s journey begins when Cole Young learns of his true destiny: to join a group of chosen warriors and prepare for a match far more deadly than the MMA bouts he’s used to.  In fact, the very fate of Earth is in their hands.

Simon McQuoid

Director/producer Simon McQuoid states, “Our goal in bringing this story to the screen was to respect the material and service the true fans, but also create a thrilling experience for moviegoers who might not know the games.  We wanted to give everyone a really fun, unrelenting ride, and let film audiences get to know these incredibly cool characters and the powerful energy of this IP.  Hopefully we’ve remained authentic and, at the same time, have been able to elevate the MK DNA in a big, cinematic way that hasn’t been done in a very long while.”

In bringing the games to life, McQuoid and the writers sought an easy entrée into the world for the uninitiated and created MMA fighter Cole Young as a vehicle for discovery so that, whether a viewer is familiar with Mortal Kombat or not, they can see the world through his eyes as someone who is experiencing it for the first time.

Writers Oren Uziel and Greg Russo developed the story that Russo and Dave Callaham then scripted. 

Russo recalls, “Respect for the canon was the mission statement I had from the very beginning.”  As a longtime fan who ranks in the top 50 among gamers in the world and top 15 in the U.S. on the Xbox platform, that was a given for Russo, who, on a visit to his mother’s home around the time he began crafting the story, found old drawings and stories about the Mortal Kombat game that he made when he was 12 years old.  “I dug them out and showed my wife, and she was like, ‘Wow!’

Greg Russo is currently writing “Saints Row,” which is based on the video game by Deep Silver Volition, with F. Gary Gray set to direct. He is also writing “Death Note 2” at Netflix, the sequel to the hit film. He has numerous scripts in development, including “Resident Evil,” “Space Invaders,” “Robotech,” “Heatseekers” and “It Takes a Thief.”

Russo says that idea for Cole’s storyline came from his own life.  “When I began working on this project, my wife and I were in the process of having our first child.  I was dealing with a lot of those questions about what it means to be a father, wondering if I would be a good dad, that sort of thing.  And I channeled all of those fears and emotions into creating the character of Cole Young.”

“Video games were always an outlet for me growing up,” he continues.  “Mortal Kombat was one of the games I latched onto the most.  I would spend countless hours at the arcade after school playing with my friends, and I had all the home console versions.  My love for this property was fostered at a very young age.  I feel this was always meant to be.”

McQuoid adds, “The fans invest a lot of time and money and attention into the games and are invested in the characters.  They know if back to front and they love it, and the writers made sure to respect that while also considering a new audience.  That’s one of the reasons I loved the script—it had heart and soul and humanity underscoring the intense action and adventure.  Every character is fighting for what matters to them.”

Part of staying true to the property would, of course, require the filmmakers to lean into its unabashed brutality, knowing at its core it’s about two worlds at war, carried out in a solely hand-to-hand manner.  “It’s a key element of Mortal Kombat,” McQuoid confirms, “but the great thing about these characters is, once you know them and their motivations, the fighting is as meaningful as it is unapologetic; you pick your favorites and you care about what happens to them.”

The film “Mortal Kombat” includes numerous canon favorites like Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the extensive lore, the iconic costumes and catchphrases, signature moves leading to gory fatalities, and the fully realized realms.

James Wan, who produced the film with Todd Garner, McQuoid and E. Bennett Walsh, explains, “It’s been over 25 years since the first feature film came out, and fans have been pretty vocal asking for another big screen entry.  As a fan myself of the games and movies, I, too, wanted to see another theatrical version of this, and felt it was time again to revisit this IP that has been kept relevant in the game world but not as much in the feature world.

“From the get-go,” he continues, “Todd Garner, my Atomic Monster team and I were gun-ho about creating an updated version with today’s filmmaking technology, whilst being respectful to the fantasy tone, violent action and gore of the game that fans have come to love.  We wanted to bring these vivid characters and stories back to the big screen in a modern, exciting way for a whole new generation who may not be as familiar with the films as we were growing up.”

Wan and Garner discussed early on how to approach a fresh take on the material with a distinct nod to its history, satisfying fans but also hopefully gaining new ones.  Garner says the key to that was “making sure we got the story right.  We didn’t want to remake the 1995 movie, we didn’t want to short-change the fans, but we needed an epic storyline that, even if you have never played the game, you could still become immersed in it.”

“Simon had a strong vision for the world and the characters from the original material,” says Wan, a master at world-building.  “Even though this is his first feature, he’s spent years in the commercial world telling visual stories, and he worked closely with the writers to design the world in the film.”

Garner adds, “When I came upon Simon’s work, not only was it visually exciting, but he really could tell a story in 30 seconds.  One of the reasons why we were eager to work with him was because he really wanted to take this inclusive, grounded, more realistic approach to the epic adventure.”

Filming on Mortal Kombat took place in and around Adelaide, the coastal capital of South Australia, where McQuoid assembled a gifted lineup of creatives, including director of photography Germain McMicking, production designer Naaman Marshall and costume designer Cappi Ireland.  “I had a very specific vision and taste, so once you get people the caliber of Naaman, Germain and Cappi on board sharing that vision, that’s half my job done,” McQuoid states.  “I loved watching these brilliant people work, it was a joy to me.”

Marshall offers, “When I met Simon, we hit it off right away, and I remember telling him I don’t play video games or follow Mortal Kombat, but what I try to do is create authentic sets, keeping them grounded in reality, and evolve from that.  That’s my approach, so if you’re looking for a gamer I might not be your guy.  And he just looked at me and said, ‘That’s a good answer.’  And from there we just set off on designing the film.

“We had such a good time working together, in the sense that Simon was always open to ideas and I’m not afraid to give ‘em,” Marshall laughs.  “It really is a pleasure to work with somebody who knows what he wants but knows when something else is a better or more interesting idea.  And we both wanted to embrace the history of Mortal Kombat and simply evolve it with a contemporary look and feel.”     

Of the final result, McQuoid says he hopes audiences sit back and enjoy the ride.  “It’s brutal, it’s action-packed, it’s full of really intense fights and a ton of Easter eggs for the hardcore superfans.  If you’ve never known about Mortal Kombat, you can totally enjoy these characters—Kano is hilarious, Sub-Zero is ruthless, Jax is magnificent, Sonya is a powerhouse, and Cole will serve as you guide to this crazy, incredible, massively exciting universe.”