Let’s get one thing straight: You can say whatever you want about Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel’s Super Mario Bros. (1993), but you need to remember that it wasn’t cheap—in fact, a more brazenly commercial product of this size and sweep may never have crawled out of studio hell in the 1990s. Furthermore, the conditions that leavened it—a hotshot husband-and-wife directing team propelled into the eye of a sprawling, committee-bred, synergetic summer-blockbuster hurricane, well after shooting began—would probably never be repeated again. The result is a queasy jumble of genre tropes (re-appropriated to hit kids’ sweet spots), and remarkable modernist visual gags, packed with political subtext, yet tossed off like so many cheap pizza napkins.
To this day, junk-film-lovers denounce Super Mario Bros. altogether. History has not accorded the film an uneven status, with its own gradient of strengths and weaknesses, but, instead, a straight plunge into a bottomless pit of filmic despair—a “game over” if there ever was one. Leaving aside the question of what a good live-action Mario Bros. movie would feel like (or the even harder one of why it needed to exist in the first place), the evidence on hand suggests an unholy marriage of fine arts and tent-pole demands, which left both sides more than a little put out. Whatever its attempts to feign effortlessness, the film is uncomfortable to its core in the aim to create Robert-Zemeckis-grade, wisecracking funhouse trappings. The experience of seeing Mario (played by Bob Hoskins, of Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) doggedly bumping his head on things and contorting himself in shock, backed up by a dishearteningly similar score (by Alan Silvestri, also a Roger Rabbit? alum), is depressing, even Vertigo-esque.
And yet, Hoskins is game, as is John Leguizamo as Luigi, shown here as a meatheaded young swain, who provides the film’s attempt at an emotional core as he follows the orphaned student Daisy (Samantha Mathis) into the fourth dimension, dragging his wisecracking brother along with him. (Over dinner at a Scorsese-worthy Italian spot in south Brooklyn, Luigi chipperly tells his new girlfriend that Mario is his mother, father, and uncle. It’s their first date.) Daisy’s contribution to the plot probably ages it the worst: The earthbound excuse for this movie is a team of plucky NYU archaeologists going toe to toe with a fat-cat real estate firm, whereas any New Yorker probably feels the opposite has happened over the ensuing 20 years. After Daisy’s dig site is sabotaged by developer-thugs, the three fall into a sandy realm-portal that kicks them out into “Dinohattan”—a parallel-dimension Big Apple where society has evolved from prehistoric lizards into cyberpunk humanoids.
Lorded over by King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), the city-state is a seedy dystopia clearly modeled after Ed Koch’s New York, even if the preponderance of Koopa-ganda embedded on the margins of the film’s frames have more in common with Michael Bloomberg’s 21st century vision of compassionate corporatism. Political dissidents are rounded up in spike-covered police cars, clubbed senseless, locked up in giant cage-grids that recall the dusty underside of an old NES cartridge, or, worse yet, processed in an electric chair that can evolve or de-volve them, depending on Koopa’s wishes. Daisy, it’s revealed, wears around her neck a piece of the original meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs and severed the two realms, and Koopa needs it to secure hegemony over both.
These are not by-the-numbers creative decisions. Despite having nothing to do with the original Nintendo games whatsoever, Dinohattan is a masterpiece of pre-CGI production design; the filmmakers here are unerringly specific in its decor, its plumes of filthy smoke, its neon, its squalor. Moments after arriving, Mario and Luigi are attacked by a sweet-looking old lady who, it’s revealed, is practically foaming at the mouth to score Koopa coins. The “goombahs” of the original game are the aforementioned de-volved—lumbering, reptilian iron maidens (again, spiked), permanently shriveled into sadistic grins as they do the bidding of their master. Koopa is, in his own words, “one evil, egg-sucking son of a snake,” and Hopper is easily the most comfortable in rendering a cackling, fingernail-sized wadge of pixels into a flesh-and-blood character—a post-Cold War remix of Morton and Jankel’s Max Headroom, the pair’s original claim to fame. The titanium boots Mario and Luigi wear to hop from one platform to another didn’t die after Super Mario Bros.; two years later they were magnetized to the cold steel floors of the hellish prison compound of John Woo’s Face/Off. It’s hard not to take this cannibalization as its own tacit sign of graphic approval.
Koopa’s two cousins, Iggy and Spike, are, as punishment for losing “the rock,” evolved from annoyingly dumb side players to annoyingly smart side players, and eventually become friends with Mario and Luigi as they traipse once more into the breach after Daisy. It is slowly revealed that she’s a princess—the last in a long, fungus-based monarchy (fungus being the natural, balancing force to high-tech, sophisticated, police-state dinosaur-people), and once he has the meteorite rock in his hand, Koopa straddles dimensions in mere seconds. In a final showdown with Mario on the Brooklyn waterfront, he even (briefly) begins disintegrating the two towers of the World Trade Center (!), before being kicked back into Dinohattan and de-evolved into a non-cartoony, mad-as-hell T-Rex. After blowing him up with a bomb (a rare visual cue borrowed directly from the original NES game), Mario and Luigi board a flying platform and wave to the downtrodden residents of Dinohattan, received again, this time as liberators.
So why is Super Mario Bros. so doggone bad? The two greatest strikes against the movie are its well-chronicled, seismically doomed production history (see here, here, here, here, and here), and the sheer bizarreness of the filmmakers’ reinterpretation. Hoskins and Leguizamo purportedly slammed scotches between takes, and the script was rewritten daily; for all the imaginative visual muscle up on the screen, the film has no funk, no tempo, no experiential design whatsoever. Rather than attempting to reproduce the exhilarating rush of early-era console gameplay, Jankel and Morton (and their army of uncredited script doctors) opted instead to plop astonishingly literary signifiers down in their embattled mise-en-scène, all of them drawing more attention to the disparity between the game and the movie, culminating in a post-credits stinger that’s hard not to interpret as an out-and-out “fuck you” to Mario’s hardcore fanbase. (Two Japanese executives, speaking offscreen, announce their intent to develop the preceding 100 minutes’ worth of story into a video game. The camera cuts to Iggy and Spike, sitting on a couch in Brooklyn, who decide in unison to call it “Super Koopa Cousins!”)
Speaking personally, this was the first summer blockbuster I witnessed in theaters, a movie I was so excited to see as a kid that I nearly vomited after getting my ticket punched. Even if it was doomed to fail as an adaptation (it was), I was transfixed by the cruel mixture of adult and kiddie imagery, the headache-spurring stupidity of the dialogue and characters, and the obvious fragility of its premise. Watching Super Mario Bros. in full, to quote J. Hoberman on They Saved Hitler’s Brain, my childhood brain “exploded with ideas.” But I think that’s actually part of the reason it was the 74th most lucrative film of 1993: Audiences will always prefer mediocrity done smoothly to a jaggedly ambitious catastrophe. This go-round, I watched the movie from beginning to end, and then revisited choice set pieces…but turned the sound off. It wasn’t enough to deter Leguizamo, whose Luigi is, even on mute, a human whoopee cushion of a character. But I noticed better, expansive vistas of Hoskins’s Mario shot from a distance, a small red-and-blue cube of a man slowly working his way through brutalist canyons and tunnels, across double helixes and patterns of upside-down pyramids, and for a hot second, I could maybe taste the sublimely concrete vision Morton and Jankel had in mind. Super Mario with chest hair means no Super Mario at all.