Cinematic adaptations of video games are a thing we take for granted these days. In this very year so far, we’ve had movies based on Tomb Raider and Rampage, while the last couple of years have seen Resident Evil, Assassin’s Creed and World of Warcraft receive the same treatment. Looking ahead, there are plans for Uncharted and Five Nights at Freddy’s movies, and even a Sonic the Hedgehog one, too. While it’s heartening, in a way, for gamers to see their medium appreciated by a wider audience, a regrettable pattern has also emerged—painfully low review scores. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, of the 34 live-action video game movies theatrically released throughout the world to date, just one has crept above 50 percent (the aforementioned Rampage)—and only by a few percentage points at that. The vast majority fall well below the halfway mark, right down to 0 percent, a dishonor held by the panned Tekken film of 2009.
That question was answered 25 years ago, back in 1993, with the release of Super Mario Bros., the first film to use a video game as its source material. A run of hugely successful, definitive platformers through the preceding years had cemented Mario as the biggest star in gaming, primed for merchandising to the point that Nintendo—a company infamously defensive of its intellectual property—handed temporary control of their mustachioed mascot to producers Roland Joffé and Jake Eberts to take him to Hollywood. Directing duties were then granted to Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, known for their co-creation of Channel 4’s Max Headroom in the U.K., in the hope that they could cast a darker, more mature aesthetic over the game series’ sunny charm.
For better or worse, they succeeded. An ostensible origin story, the movie depicts Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) as down-on-their-luck Brooklyn plumbers—a busman’s holiday for Hoskins, who had a brief tenure as a real-life plumber before setting his colleague’s foot on fire. A day that starts with them scrambling to fix a broken dishwasher ends with them discovering a parallel, Blade Runner-esque world in which dinosaurs have evolved to the level of human sophistication. Its evil ruler King Koopa (Dennis Hopper) plots to use Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis)—a paleontology student abandoned as a child and unaware of her royal ancestry—to merge and conquer both worlds, and it falls upon the brothers to save the day.
Despite these grand designs for a revolutionary retconning of the games’ continuity—including what Morton calls a “beautiful” script by prolific English writing team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais—the movie was underfunded. This forced the producers to go cap in hand to money-minded investors, who were adamant that it should be a child-friendly comedy romp, as opposed to the more “interesting, emotional and sophisticated” drama that Morton says the directors had envisioned. The subsequent rewrite was handed to the directors at the 11th hour, casting the production into disarray—a theme that would continue for the duration of filming.
I looked down and realized my breast had fallen out, and Dennis Hopper had been watching the whole time. I went, ‘Oh, my God! Excuse me!’ and he went, ‘That’s quite alright!’
He continues, “At that point, Annabel and I were close to walking away from the project. We had this terrible decision to make: Do we walk away and land everybody in the shit, or do we soldier on, take the responsibility and try and make it work and fix the problems with the script as we were shooting? In retrospect, I realize that was the wrong decision. Knowing what I know now, I’d have had to have said, ‘No, we can’t do this. Unless we shoot my original script, I can’t accept the responsibility.’ But, naively, I went blundering into it, and I paid the price.”
With these behind-the-scenes issues, conflicts of interest and the threat of a $2 million fine from Nintendo if the team didn’t meet a tight deadline, the end result was a film that holds the unfortunate legacy of establishing video game adaptations as shoddy, shallow cash-ins. Several weeks behind schedule, and bloated and bastardized beyond recognition, Super Mario Bros. ended up having something of a corrosive effect on every involved party; Hoskins and Leguizamo reportedly resorted to alcohol to get through filming, inertial overseers created a disastrous experience for the directors ("It was a living hell,” says Morton) and the band Roxette even grew disdainful of their power ballad “Almost Unreal,” which they unwittingly contributed to the soundtrack, having originally written it for Disney’s Hocus Pocus.
“This ain’t no game,” read the film’s tagline. Or, to paraphrase, “This isn’t going to be fun.”
However, taking into account the original concepts of the film, as well as the initial enthusiasm of those involved, it becomes evident that Super Mario Bros. isn’t a fundamentally bad movie as much as it is a missed opportunity. Morton’s conceit was that the video games would come to be seen as a retelling of the film, his story having been reinterpreted through the years due to “Japanese whispers.” It would be a tale of brotherhood, exploring the complex relationship between the orphaned Mario and Luigi, and depicting how their strong fraternal bond came to be. External pressures derailed that original plan, though, and several minor details were also lost, which could have helped shape a more palpable film universe. For instance, the dystopian Dinohattan relies on electric vehicles because fossil fuels are banned, since they’re the remnants of the dino-humans’ ancestors. Intricate touches like this were swept aside in favor of derivative, running-into-glass-panel gags. As an irate Dennis Hopper asserted on set, “If it’s not in the script, it’s not on the screen.”
“I think that relatively early on, it became apparent that there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” Samantha Mathis tells me. “When I read the script, I thought it had a lot of problems, but then the category of people that were attached to the project made me feel, ‘OK, they’re definitely aiming high to make something special.’ But I was confused about how it was all going to work out, for sure."
“I don’t think that Bob really got on well with Rocky and Annabel," she adds. "While I was still early on in my career, there was a sense, for me, that they were overwhelmed. It was a massive undertaking, the size of the production, and I could see Bob’s impatience and frustration.”
Such defenders of the film are Ryan Hoss and Steven Applebaum, who, for the last 11 years, have run a fan site devoted to promoting discussion and appreciation of its misunderstood history. Super Mario Bros: The Movie Archive is a treasure trove of scripts, props and merchandise, as well as an original webcomic—produced in collaboration with Parker Bennett, one of the film’s original writers—and privately funded 4K trailer restorations, which paved the way for the U.K. Blu-ray release of the film in 2014.
“I had this collection, and the internet was growing in terms of fansites during that era, the late ‘90s, and I always knew the Mario Bros. movie was misunderstood and a sore spot in people’s minds—at least, the way it was being portrayed on the internet, the ‘worst movie ever’ kind of deal,” Hoss explains to Playboy about creating this haven for fanatics and skeptics alike. “Early on, the filmmakers and producers were trying to make a fantasy version more like the games, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to work. I just wanted to applaud them for doing something different and have people understand that.”
Applebaum praises the film for its seeming high-minded approach. “I had always been into folklore, mythology and how storytelling evolves over time—Jungian archetypes and [Joseph Campbell's] The Hero With a Thousand Faces, that kind of thing,” he says. “I had always seen the Super Mario Bros. franchise in that way, it being Japanese media that depicts an Italian-American immigrant in a fantastical third world. I always thought it was a unique example of Occidentalism. A lot of art history and anthropology majors talk about how the West always views Eastern nations from an Orientalist perspective, and Super Mario Bros. is really one of the first examples of Eastern media penetrating into Western pop culture, and it’s like a Japanese interpretation of what it means to have European, fantastical archetypes."
While an average viewer is unlikely to ever appreciate the film on such a philosophical level, Super Mario Bros. did find acclaim in certain areas, despite its odious 14 percent on the Tomatometer. In particular, it earned praise for its visual effects, which were considered cutting-edge at the time. Morton had been involved in CGI since its infancy. Beyond his Max Headroom credit, he and Jankel were also the first directors to harness such graphics in a music video—Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen” in 1979—and the first to make an entirely CGI commercial for Pirelli. Super Mario Bros. is also lauded by its visual effects supervisor, Christopher Woods, who to this day speaks highly of his team’s work. It was even a runner-up nominee for the Best Visual Effects Award at the 1994 Oscars, but was beaten out for the nomination by The Nightmare Before Christmas, in which distributor Disney had more of a vested interest and for which they lobbied harder for a nomination. The winner that year was, understandably, Jurassic Park, but Super Mario Bros. boasted its own impressive digital dinosaur in the form of Yoshi, depicted here as a Spielberg-worthy infant tyrannosaur, as opposed to a cuddly, anthropomorphic sidekick.
I storyboarded the entire film, and the script comes in, and it’s just all completely different. I had all my storyboards put into the parking lot and set fire to them all, ceremoniously.
“Chris is working with us to push the same historical vindication," he says. "He wants not only fans of the industry, but the industry itself, to acknowledge that Super Mario Bros. contributed in certain ways. His studio has offered to do the restoration itself, color correction and other things. He even suggested that he might possibly have the original unfinished VFX on the original 35mm, in which case we might even be able to include deleted scenes, which in itself is a huge find.”
Much like Hoss and Applebaum have found solace with other fans via their site, the actors found similar support in each other at the time of filming, which took place in Wilmington, N.C. On a set plagued by what Mathis calls a “palpable tension,” as well as injury—Hoskins spent a part of the film wearing a cast on his hand after Leguizamo harshly braked the van they were traveling in, crushing his on-screen brother’s fingers in the sliding door—the cast still got along “famously,” bonding and finding greater creative satisfaction in their off-set activities. Mathis spent downtime reading Shakespeare with her mother—actress Bibi Besch—and costar Fiona Shaw, and speaks highly of a whirlwind press tour of Japan with Hoskins and Leguizamo. She also looks back fondly on her time with the late Dennis Hopper, even if their introduction was awkward, to say the least.
“Dennis arrived, and I actually met him on set before we were about to shoot a significant scene, where he’s got me as his captive,” she recalls. “We were shooting in this giant cement factory, and we were sitting in directors’ chairs, talking. I was trying to get to know him before we started shooting the scene, and I found myself talking and thinking maybe he wasn’t listening to me, or maybe I’m just babbling like a nervous, young actress. So I continued talking, and I still felt like, ‘Gosh, maybe it’s the years of drugs, maybe he zones in and out.’ Finally, I got frustrated because I felt like he wasn’t engaging me, and I looked down and realized my breast had fallen out of my wardrobe, and he’d been watching the whole time. I looked up and went, ‘Oh, my God! Excuse me!’ and he went, ‘That’s quite alright!’ with this Cheshire Cat smile. He was always playful with me, yet incredibly sweet and kind."
“Another really fond memory I have, we went to Downtown Wilmington, and he showed us where he shot Blue Velvet, then took us to this big, old Masonic temple," she says. "He took us to the top floor, where this beautiful, old theater was. The floor was completely falling through, there were pigeons everywhere, but he said, ‘I’m going to buy this, and I’m going to turn it into an arts center.’ Years later, I went back to Wilmington, and I went to that building, and there were affordable artists’ lofts, a theatre company, and he had restored the theater, and there were plays being done and a lovely rooftop bar. He kept his word and created this space. That’s a testament to Dennis supporting the arts. It made me so happy to go there, not that he had passed away, but to go back to that bar on the rooftop and have a drink in his honor.”
And so, a quarter of a century later, Super Mario Bros., regardless of its infamy, has carved out a certain sentimentality in the minds of third-generation gamers, a demographic whose collaborative use of online media often brings rekindled appreciation, and occasionally, new understanding to childhood pop culture. While video game movies continue to be a cause of as much cynicism as celebration—there’s already apprehension about a new animated Mario movie on the horizon—the directors and actors behind Super Mario Bros. have come to terms with its flaws and are ultimately proud of what their piece of medium-bending ephemera represents. To them, the fact that it’s treated more warmly in hindsight—albeit sometimes with tongue in cheek—comes as no surprise.
“I still meet people that say to me, ‘It was my favorite film as a kid,’” beams Morton. “There was nothing like it, for all its criticism from the press and everybody—and the press were really against it because there was a big backlash against video games, because people thought it was ruining their children and [that] it’s appalling that Hollywood were making movies of it. If you look at all the films that came out around that time, it was so much more imaginative and out-there than anything on the screen. It was just nailed—quite rightly, too—by the critics, but the kids that saw it didn’t really care too much about that. They were just along for the ride.”
“Super Mario Bros. ends up being one of the things people are most excited to talk to me about, which always tickles me because I think, ultimately, the movie was kind of a mess,” laughs Mathis, echoing her director’s experience. “But they have this nostalgia, the generation that was between the ages of 8 and 20 at the time. There are a lot of people who are really excited to meet me because I was Princess Daisy. That’s all you can ask for as an actor—that your work, and something you were part of, left an impression on people and makes them feel good.”