A Look Beyond The Surface – Mortal Kombat

This is one of an occasional series I’m going to call “A Look Beyond The Surface.” I’ve found that when people dislike a movie (people at the sites I frequent, anyway), they call it a bad movie and then proceed to trash it as if it contains no intrinsic value whatsoever. If it’s a Michael Bay movie, they trash it any chance they get. The point is, people have this thing about not seeing the value in something (or someone) they perceive as unlikable. So my idea is to do some dumpster diving and seek out the value in what is generally considered to be garbage.

First up is a 1995 movie called Mortal Kombat. I’m issuing a Spoiler Alert now. So if you haven’t seen the movie and seriously want to see it, go do that before reading further. If you don’t mind spoilers, keep reading. I’m going to explain the story for you first, in case you haven’t seen it.

In Mortal Kombat, the realm of Earth is ripe for a hostile takeover by the realm of Outworld, or more specifically, its evil ruler, Shao Kahn. But before he can send his armies in for said hostile takeover, he must first open the portals to the realm of Earth. The way this is done, as decreed by a few wise and powerful Elder Gods however many eons ago, is to win ten straight martial arts tournaments, called Mortal Kombat, with each tournament being held once a generation. This means that after filing his takeover request to the gods and winning the first tournament, Shao Kahn had to wait about 225 years and eight more tournament wins to get to this point: the tenth and final tournament. That’s a very patient evil ruler Outworld has. I wonder if he was so patient while filling out that takeover request in triplicate.

To defend the realm of Earth, the greatest warriors the planet has to offer are chosen once a generation to fight in the Mortal Kombat tournament. The movie, though, only focuses in on three of those warriors: Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade. The rest are taken out in a quick montage with some ear-shattering music playing. Led through their unbelievable journey by the god of lightning, Raiden, the trio of warriors must discover their fears and learn to face them if they are to succeed in defeating Shang Tsung, Shao Kahn’s right-hand evil sorcerer (what great megalomaniac ruling over a busted realm doesn’t have one), and his warriors, including two mystical ninjas: Scorpion, a guy who shoots a living spear from his hand, and Sub-Zero, who freezes stuff and, by my estimation anyway, was the actual inspiration for the movie Frozen. I can so hear him operatically belting out “Let It Go.”

This is where the lessons Raiden is attempting to impart on his not-so-merry fighters come into play. For the tournament is filled with unusual adversaries that tend to have some sort of advantage over their Earth opponent. In short, they cheat. And so Raiden must get his fighters to conquer their fears so they’ll believe that they can, “overcome any adversary, no matter how bizarre their powers may seem.” And that’s the first bit of value in this movie, the idea that if you go into something believing you’re likely to lose, then you’ve already lost. The mind is a tricky thing as it can either push us forward or pull us down, depending on what we believe. Furthermore, one success can lead to another success and another simply because the mind is in a positive mode and will recognize opportunities that normally wouldn’t be seen otherwise. It’s like how one lucky incident happens, which leads to more lucky happenings, which eventually snowballs into a nice Hawaiian vacation with booze served in half-cut coconuts decorated with a straw alongside a tiny umbrella that you just won’t use because it doesn’t have a use other than decoration. And you probably won’t use the straw either, depending on how expensive the booze is.

However, if the mind is in a negative frame, it’s more likely to only pay attention to the bad occurrences. When that happens, opportunities, good opportunities, can be missed simply by the mind writing them off as possibly ending up bad anyway. It’s like you’re saying, “Hey, I’ll fail that too, so why should I even try?” This is what Raiden is pushing against in Mortal Kombat, the idea that failure is inevitable because of what looks like insurmountable odds. What he desires his fighters to realize is that it’s only in their minds that those odds are insurmountable.

This is most apparent after the Earth fighters get off to a quick start, defeating their Outworld adversaries, leading Shang Tsung to unleash his greatest warrior: an eight-foot tall, four-armed, super muscular beast of a man named Goro. Remember that montage I mentioned a few paragraphs back? Yeah, that was Goro, in that montage, very easily mopping up Earth’s champions. Of course, upon witnessing such a scrub-free mop-up, Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade have a little chat with Raiden concerning Goro and the fact that nobody can even damage the guy. This leads Raiden to just come right out and tell his fighters what their fears are so they can face those fears.

Addressing Johnny Cage, an egotistical Hollywood star of martial arts movies, Raiden informs him that he fears people thinking of him as a fake – he can only fight in movies where other actors are supposed to take a dive for him – and so he’ll rush into any real fight just prove he’s not. The problem here is that if he rushes into a fight with Goro, he’s going to die because… Goro. So after going off and thinking about what Raiden said, Johnny Cage decides to challenge Goro before his time to fight him. Now, you’d think that would be an example of rushing into a fight, but it’s actually not, because Cage, rather than throwing himself into the mix, comes up with a strategy for fighting Goro before challenging him. In other words, rather than fighting head-first, he’s fighting ‘head first.’ (I thought that last sentence was clever, but probably not.)

After Cage makes a deal with Shang Tsung that allows Cage to jump up to the #1 contender fight with Goro immediately, Raiden worryingly asks Cage what he’s done, to which Cage eye of the tiger-ishly responds, “I made a choice. This is our tournament, remember? Mortal Kombat. We fight it.” This is another bit of value to be found in this movie: the sense of personal responsibility. Substitute the tournament for one’s life and you get something more like: ‘I made a choice. This is my life, remember? I live it.’ And if you take this substitution back to the idea of having to face your fears in order to survive in the tournament, then there’s a bit of a message that’s not so much about not being afraid to die as it is about not being afraid to live.

But a sense of personal responsibility is a valuable thing to have. People who lack it tend to blame others for their failures and/or don’t see failure as something that can be learned from. They can develop an ultra-sensitive defensiveness, in which something like rejection is taken as a personal attack, as if the person doing the rejecting is somehow a bad person for saying no, which can lead the rejected to take offense easily and may result in a harsh and unreasonable response. However, with a sense of personal responsibility, things like rejection and failure are learned from so that success can, at the very least, become within reach. And that’s something we see Johnny Cage do when he finally faces his fear and begins to take on some personal responsibility: he brings success within reach, not only for himself, but for all of Earthrealm.

Sure, on its surface, Mortal Kombat is a shallow martial arts action movie with cool special effects, sometimes awesome dialogue mixed with sometimes terrible dialogue, and exploding heads (okay, only one exploding head that I can recall at the moment), but that doesn’t mean there’s no treasure to be found amongst the piles of fluff. And if you can look past that obvious fluff, if you can dive deeper into it, Mortal Kombat can come off as a pretty well-written film with some nice merits to it. Or you can just sit back, turn your brain off, and enjoy all of the well-choreographed punching and kicking. I actually prefer the latter, believe it or not.

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