Days of Ideas and Plumbers

November 2014: Super Mario Bros. at QUAD, Derby

Super Mario Bros.jpg

Messing with popular institutions is a dangerous business, not least because wrenching people from their comfort zones usually leads to accusations of fixing things that aren’t broken. But experimentation and innovation is at the heart of creativity, so while that messing around may not yield success, it does usually yield some fun.

Failing all that, of course, there is always someone willing to do an enthusiastic sales pitch for even the most experimental of ideas.

As a kind of opiate for the cinema-going masses, popcorn is a tried-and-tested formula that generally resists significant tampering. Vast buckets of cheaply-produced, run-of-the mill sweet or salted aren’t really my style, but turning up for Super Mario Bros. and having my head turned by flavours like Lemon Sherbet or Crispy Bacon and Maple Syrup was enough to inspire a change of heart towards the stuff.

Doubtless, a lot of people take one look at it and simply declare, "Eugh!" My over-indulged taste buds, on the other hand, didn't need a big sell. Always happy to sample the unconventional, I plumped for a bag of the bacon variety and scampered off to claim one of Cinema Two's splendidly plump seats. The popcorn had the potential to be an unpalatable disaster, but the fun was precisely in that risk – much like the screening I’d chosen to attend while eating it.

You would think that a film adaptation featuring two video game plumbers, around which the stench of failure perpetually hangs like a blocked sink (ahem), would do little to merit a place in a celebration of science fiction. Happily, there are people out there who disagree.

‘Days of Fear and Wonder’ is the British Film Institute’s nationwide, three-month long season celebrating science fiction. For their part, QUAD collaborated with Adam Batty of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second to program three different strands of sci-fi cinema. Super Mario Bros. represented the conclusion of November’s ‘failed franchises’ strand.

Batty’s own blog post about an impressive home media release for the film sold it as a movie genuinely worth revisiting. Some further reading about the production’s troubled existence, and its unique take on the Mario universe, only served to lend the film a patina of charm that plenty of mundane video game-based stories have lacked over the years.

The question was, would that potential for charm translate into reality?

The grim, metallic colour palette used to depict the dystopian alternate-universe New York ruled by King Koopa was completely at odds with the vibrant level design of the Mario games. That turned off many viewers in 1993 but, twenty years later, armed with the understanding that such an act was deliberate – the world was conceived as a reality on which the games were based, rather than the other way round – it was much easier to enjoy the light-hearted gaming references laced throughout the 104-minute run time.

The Super Mario Bros. movie set was a disaster to work on, but the world it portrayed is remarkably coherent given the film's reputation. The principle cast – Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper – had little positive to say about their experiences, but the only real indication of turmoil was a script that too easily betrayed some hasty rewrites. Even among the clunky dialogue and controversial creative choices, however, there were funny moments. 

Despite their tribulations, it was impossible to doubt the commitment of the actors. Hoskins in particular really sold Mario as a personality, all lovable charm and humour throughout (having only ever associated him with Roger Rabbit and BT commercials, I want to go back and see more of his work).

Difficult though It was to see past the cast simply as famous people in fancy dress, given the (literally) two dimensional origin of their characters, Super Mario Bros. has to be considered a commendable result. The evening, then, with its experimental (but satisfying) snacks and experimental (but equally satisfying) film that played with the conventions of its source material, was a success.

Many exciting events have taken place up and down the land as part of 'Days of Fear and Wonder', including a screening of Silent Running at the Eden Project that, by all accounts, was spectacular. Witnessing that kind of innovation and creativity is intoxicating enough from afar, but the true pleasure of watching Super Mario Bros. was to finally participate - even in just a small way - in the BFI’s initiative.

‘Days of Fear and Wonder’ continues through December. QUAD’s final strand of programming features the landmark classics Things to Come, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Akira, and Brazil.

If you enjoyed this blog post ...

... then you might like the tale of my journey around some of the UK's finest indie cinemas (and a few further afield). A Tour of the Indies: A Creative Quest for the UK's Best Cinema's ... and Cake has this dedicated page where you can read more.