'Super Mario Brothers' will go from TV screen to the big screen at Christmas

August 16, 1992|By Michael Specter | Michael Specter,New York Times

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- New York has entered a state of intense decay. A giant fungus crawls across the city, feeding on brick and mortar. The Hudson River has become a dusty plain, and what's left of Manhattan -- five seedy blocks surrounding the plundered towers of the World Trade Center -- has turned into an eerie universe of reptiles and con men.

Rotted car bodies have become easier to find than water or wood. And an obnoxious despot, ruling the city with whimsical fury, has decided he had better do something fast, or the place will be history.

The city, a future-shock melding of Times Square and downtown, is called Dinohattan. And the despot, the evil King Koopa, has to find a way to merge the rest of New York -- which was sheared off from Dinohattan in a meteor blast 65 million years earlier -- with his desiccated, reptilian empire.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If so, you are probably a 12-year-old boy, or one of the many Super Mario maniacs who sometimes act like 12-year-olds boys. "Super Mario Brothers," the addictive, immensely successful Nintendo video game, is about to become "Super Mario Brothers," a $42 million neon-tinted film showcase for two schlumpy Italian brothers from Brooklyn, the stolid Mario Mario (played by Bob Hoskins) and his sweet but addled brother Luigi (John Leguizamo).

The Mario brothers' enemy, Koopa, swathed in leather, metal and plenty of grease, is played by Dennis Hopper with his usual air of bemused malevolence. The movie, produced by Roland Joffe, who made "The Killing Fields" and most recently directed "City of Joy," is scheduled to open this Christmas.

To many battery-powered American children, the mustachioed Mario has become as familiar as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. He and Luigi are a technopop Laurel and Hardy. And they certainly rank among the world's best-known plumbers.

The plot of this family-oriented movie about vicious reptilian sociopaths is -- like the game -- simple. There are good guys and bad guys and an adorable princess (played by Samantha Mathis, the older daughter in Nora Ephron's "This Is My Life") who has to be saved, as does humanity.

There are hints of every mythic adolescent adventure from "Superman" to "The Wizard of Oz," although Dorothy was able to recognize the absence of Kansas more readily than the Mario brothers would.

But it is the striking vision of New York life -- constructed here in this Southeastern beach resort on 80,000 square feet in an abandoned cement factory -- that will stamp the movie in many minds. The set is a ghoulish rendering of a carnivorous, thrusting and violent city, not in the future or past but in a parallel universe.

It is a world where evolution moves backward as easily and effortlessly as it moves forward, and where, through an annoying quirk of fate, mammals (not dinosaurs) have become the major species on earth. The film's dark, aggressive design was created by David L. Snyder, whose expression of the suffocating, dysfunctional Los Angeles of 2019 in "Blade Runner" set a new standard.

Along with Beth Rubino, the set decorator, and Walter Martishius, the art director, Mr. Snyder spent months trying to conjure a seedy, claustrophobic, hostile but oddly invigorating New York City -- one for reptiles and dinosaurs as well as plumbers, of course -- filled with vendors that sell blood tonics, knife salesmen, soapbox preachers and eternally broken cash machines.

"We took the city and stretched it into an odd carnivorous exaggeration of itself," said Ms. Rubino, who lives in New York and hopes the movie conveys the design team's deep affection for the city. "The subway, the street peddlers, the newsstands are all there -- just different. On a good summer evening, you can stroll into the heart of the city and everything on earth is for sale there. So we did that, too. But we made sure to put a little edge on it."

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