Mortal Kombat: Legacy has done a great job of changing things up and staying interesting so far. The first two episodes of the series looked like excerpts from a big budget action film. Then the third was a parody of celebrity news and reality TV. This episode keeps up the intrigue by starting out with some animation. It begins with a fairy tale voice over telling us about the history of some sort of mystical land. We get castles and mountain backdrops, and it’s all presented in a stylish, almost water color looking animation. I thought it was an interesting thing to do for a series that has been, up to this point, all about keeping things set mostly in our modern reality. But then the animation transitions into live action and everything goes bad. So bad that, by the end of this episode, I was left feeling a lot less confident about the direction Mortal Kombat: Legacy is going in.
Instead of remaining an animated fairy tale, this episode inexplicably jumps back and forth between being a cartoon, and being a really shoddy looking take on the live action fantasy genre. With this jump into the fantastical, it appears that Kevin Tancharoen and company have discovered the limits of their budget and resources. The outdoor scenes look not only fake, but also cheesy and low budget. The indoor ones are obscured in shadow. This series has used a shadowy aesthetic before, but up to this point it was well executed and has appeared to be for reasons of style. In this episode the black goes far too deep, and it’s clearly used to hide the sparseness of the fantasy sets. We get introduced to the character of Baraka, and he looks like a low rent version of one of the Orcs from The Lord of the Rings. He looks like an Orc would look if there were a Lord of the Rings theme park with characters roaming around so your kids could take pictures with them. Baraka, as he’s presented here, might be fun for Halloween, but he’s not camera ready.
The acting in this episode takes a huge leap off of a cliff as well. The dialogue scenes haven’t been great in this series so far, but they’ve at least been competent. Here Aleks Paunovic gives some line readings as Shao Kahn that are simply laughable in their execution. I imagine it’s the effect of trying to emote in front of fake backdrops instead of in mostly realized sets that’s making him look so ridiculous. I was instantly reminded of how the skills of great actors like Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor seem to vanish when they work with George Lucas. This could have all been avoided if they had just done this whole episode in animation. The jump back and forth is jarring and strange. And the contrasting tone of something that might be cool, and something that looks cheesy and horrible is palpable.
Remaining an animated tale wouldn’t have saved the story we’re told from being senseless though. We’re given a fantasy Kingdom that is being invaded by Orcs: okay, that I get. But the rest of the story is mind boggling in its conception. We first are introduced to a deposed King, who is then quickly revealed as an imposter. We’re told that the real King escapes, but who he was, where he goes, or if he’s even important to the story is never explained. Then we have a Queen who is forced to live alongside the evil usurper Shao Khan as his wife, and a baby Princess who gets a demon clone made of her for unclear reasons. You see; Shao Khan is worried that Princess Kitana will grow to hate him, and for some reason he thinks a vampire clone of the baby named Mileena won’t. Then, worried that Kitana’s “soul will be corrupted”, whatever that means, the Queen takes her life and “merges her soul with her daughters”, whatever that means. By the end of the narration my head was spinning at how senseless and stupid everything was.
The various fan-made web-shorts that led up to the short that launched this series all had one thing in common; they were more grounded takes on beloved genre material than studios had attempted with the properties up until that point. Instead of taking these characters into the realm of fantasy, I think the makers of this series would have been better off modernizing and humanizing these origins, and making them something much more grounded in our reality. I’ll buy cyber-implanted eyes, but my suspension of disbelief doesn’t stretch as far as what we were given in this episode. Especially when they clearly don’t have the resources or skill to present an otherworldly story well. Why couldn’t Shao Khan have just been a drug kingpin or something, and the twins real human girls, one a bitch and one not? Baraka could have been some sort of crazy mercenary who had knives implanted in his forearms. They could have done anything, other than this poorly conceived nonsense. Before this episode, Mortal Kombat: Legacy looked at home alongside the best of cable TV action shows. It looked fine in comparison to things like Buffy or The Shield when taken in small doses. With this episode it takes a nosedive and looks like the worst of the dregs of late night cable. I don’t even know if it would hold up when looked at beside the Xenas and the Star Gates of the world. Please Mortal Kombat, let’s get this subplot over with and go back to the stuff you started out doing, straight up action sequences served up in palatable ten-minute doses. If you have the courage, you can watch the atrocity that is episode 4 for yourself below and make your own judgment.