In 1992, Robert Altman’s satire The Player laid bare a Hollywood run by idiots, criminals, and charlatans; a place where the people who know the least somehow manage to find themselves on top. One year later, Super Mario Bros emerged to prove Altman right—if there’s ever been a more cacophonous, breathtakingly misguided blockbuster in all of Hollywood, I haven’t seen it. 24 years later, it remains a mystery how this bizarre, ugly thing was ever greenlit. It seems to have been made by people who have no familiarity with the source material, coherent narrative and tone, Brooklyn, or plumbing.
It opens with perhaps the most logic-straining voiceover in history—initially a quick rundown of how the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor 65 million years ago, it takes a very abrupt turn: “But what if the dinosaurs weren’t all destroyed? What if the impact of that meteor created a parallel dimension where the dinosaurs continued to thrive and evolve into intelligent, vicious, and aggressive beings… just like us?” Setting aside what a complete non-sequitur this what-if scenario feels like, this is a lot to pile on your audience in the first minute of your movie.
It then jumps to “Brooklyn – 20 years ago,” apparently an era defined by pseudo-gothic atmosphere and low Dutch angled shots, as if the filmmakers decided that a little vague Tim Burton pastiche was just what this thing needed. This prologue sequence ends with a human baby hatching out of a very large egg, which is exactly as unsettling as it sounds.
The narrative then jumps to present-day Brooklyn, as we meet the titular Mario brothers—Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo), plumbers short on work and behind on rent. That they look, sound, and act nothing alike is not commented upon. They run into Daisy (Samantha Mathis), a university student running an archaeological dig over what was intended as a build site for a Trump-ian business mogul. No, I didn’t particularly care either.
Fast forward a bit, Daisy is kidnapped and taken to uh…a parallel dimension where dinosaurs were allowed to evolve into human-adjacent creatures. Dinohattan, specifically; a hellish cityscape where water is scarce, and some kind of disgusting fungus has grown over just about everything in sight. Dinohattan is ruled over by Koopa (Dennis Hopper), a murderous despot who wants to use Daisy and the McGuffin she carries around to merge the two dimensions together. The Mario bros follow Daisy to Dinohattan, try to rescue her, you know the drill.
I can only imagine the road the writers took from the original Super Mario Bros—a bright, colorful, nonsensical game about a plumber (whose primary weapon is jumping high) fighting a giant dragon-turtle hybrid to rescue the princess of a kingdom made up of unbearably cute mushroom people—to Super Mario Bros the movie, which largely takes place in a dank, nightmarish retro-future dystopia that suggests Blade Runner fucking Brazil and the resulting offspring stumbling into an early David Cronenberg movie. Its tone strains to be light, fun, and slapsticky, but it clashes terribly with the all-consuming ugliness that defines the production design.
I can hardly imagine a Super Mario Bros movie that could have been less evocative of its source than this one. Watching it for the first time since I was a kid (when I liked it simply because it had the Mario name on it), I was a bit staggered—this is a Super Mario universe that canonically has pornography in it (seriously), and features Megadeth on its soundtrack. There is a deeply unpleasant scene where Koopa makes sexually predatory overtures at Daisy. Everyone’s favorite dinosaur Yoshi makes an appearance, but he gets stabbed in the fucking neck. It’s a whopping 66 minutes into this 104-minute movie before the Mario brothers don their iconic red and green outfits. And Lance Henriksen has a cameo for some reason.
To a certain extent, I sort of understand why this movie went so haywire—to call the early Super Mario games plot-light would be generous, and what plot is there generally makes no damn sense. It’s a plumber fighting evil turtles to save a kingdom full of people with mushroom caps on their heads. If I were a Hollywood writer tasked with adapting that to the big screen, I would likely find myself at a loss. Even so, it’s difficult to grasp how the final product ended up as the obscenely bloated trainwreck that it is—it feels like every single creative person involved was trying to make a different movie. It’s bizarrely fascinating to watch; its awfulness eventually congeals into a kind of strange beauty. Perhaps I’ve developed Stockholm syndrome, but there’s admittedly a lot of imagination at work in Super Mario Bros. That nearly all of it was used in the worst ways possible almost feels beside the point. Competent mediocrity is everywhere; movies as wholly disastrous as Super Mario Bros come through the pipe so rarely that they should be cherished.