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MORTAL KOMBAT – Benjamin Wallfisch

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The video game Mortal Kombat, originally created and developed by the American video game developer Midway Games in 1992, is one of the most popular and successful fighting games in the history of the industry. Originally conceived as a video game spinoff of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies such as Kickboxer and Bloodsport, it eventually morphed into a fantasy setting in which human warriors, chosen by the gods, face off against assorted demons and monsters in a fighting tournament, the victors of which would go on to control the universe. The game is notorious for its incredibly gruesome and graphic in-game ‘fatalities,’ the realism of which eventually led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board and its age-based rating system, but this has not stopped it from becoming an expanding franchise that now comprises several spinoff games, comic books, an animated TV series, and several movies.

This latest Mortal Kombat movie follows on from the popular 1995 original (and its risible 1997 sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation), and is intended to be a reboot of the franchise. The film is directed by Australian filmmaker Simon McQuoid and stars Lewis Tan as Cole Young, a former Mixed Martial Arts champion who becomes involved with the Mortal Kombat tournament when he is identified as the subject of an ancient prophecy which states that a direct descendant of the legendary fighter Hanzo Hasashi will unite the warriors of Earth and defeat the forces of the ‘outworld’. He is hunted by the vicious outworld warrior Sub-Zero, but escapes to a sanctuary in the temple of Lord Raiden, who is training other experienced fighters to take on the outworlders in the next Mortal Kombat tournament. The film co-stars Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, and Hiroyuki Sanada, and has an original score by British composer Benjamin Wallfisch.

The two best things about Wallfisch’s Mortal Kombat score are the fact that he is utterly faithful to the electronic musical soundscape of the original game, and that he also finds a way to insert some passages of dense and complicated orchestral writing into the mix, resulting in a hybrid score which is very impressive, but will likely only be enjoyed by a small percentage of film music aficionados. The most famous musical part of the original game was its main theme, “Techno Syndrome,” written by Olivier Adams of the Belgian industrial techno band The Immortals. It’s a massively upbeat, pumping, vivid, adrenaline-fueled piece, anchored by its signature scream of “mortal kombat!” recurring throughout the track. This piece – and, as such, this type of intense techno electronica – is the iconic musical calling card of the entire franchise, and as such it was absolutely necessary that Wallfisch used it as his starting point for his score.

In Watertower Records’s press release notes Wallfisch explains “When I was invited to come on board Mortal Kombat, I was very aware of the responsibility that comes with scoring a franchise so deeply embedded in pop culture and with such a passionate fanbase. My first question was: what can we do with ‘Techno Syndrome,’ a piece of music so much part of the DNA of the game and the original movies? What motifs could be reinvented and blown up to a full-scale symphonic sound world in the score, and might there be room for a full reinvention of the whole song as an EDM single in 2021?”

The answer to the last part of this question is: yes. The new version of “Techno Syndrome” is indeed a huge, pulsating anthem which, I have to admit, I found hugely enjoyable. Despite me having never really played the games, I have always enjoyed this iconic theme, initially when it was used in the trailer for the 1995 movie, and then when it was incorporated into George S. Clinton’s subsequent score. For this film Wallfisch has really tapped into the electronic dance music zeitgeist in his new arrangement but – and here’s the key – you have to be able to enjoy EDM in order to get anything out of the track, because if you don’t it will simply come across as obnoxious noise. The same goes for a great deal of the rest of the score, because throughout almost all of it Wallfisch layers his orchestra with endless EDM loops and beats, thunderous blasting pulses, and lots of digital manipulation, all intended to keep the energy levels at maximum. At this point I’m sure that a large number of people will check out because, even though this type of electronica is the immovable musical cornerstone of the entire Mortal Kombat franchise, this type of EDM is totally unpalatable to many people. And that’s fine; it’s not for everyone. But to dismiss it outright would be unfair, because there’s also a lot of fun and impressive orchestral writing to be found too.

The orchestra was recorded in Australia at Trackdown Digital in Sydney, and was conducted by both Brett Kelly and the esteemed Christopher Gordon. Truthfully, I don’t know whether Wallfisch was able to take motifs from the game and ‘reinvent and blow them up to a full-scale symphonic sound,’ because I’m not familiar enough with the music from the game, but it does appear that Wallfisch has written several original character themes for the iconic fighters, many of which re-occur throughout the score as different people face off against each other in different settings.

Several cues stood out to me as being especially notable. Parts of “Hanzo Hasashi” are unexpectedly warm, subtle, and engaging, with soft writing for pan flutes and harps backed by strings alluding to his historical heritage. “Lord Raiden” employs a distinctly Dark Knight-esque vibe in the cello ostinatos, especially when they combine with fluttering electronic percussion patterns, and the brass writing is at times very bold and heroic. “Bi-Han” – the character who later becomes the fearsome Sub-Zero – has an identifying marker for grating, guttural, growling electronics, which often emerges into a battering ram of throbbing, complicated percussion, and frenetic keyboard patterns. Sub-Zero’s master, the demonic shapeshifter “Shang Tsung,” is more ominous still, and is usually accompanied by a combination of dark and moody string figures, with buzzing, dissonant electronic textures. Subtle references to ‘Techno Syndrome’ are woven throughout the score – listen to what the strings are doing right at the beginning of “Hanzo Hasashi,” for example – but there will be more on this later.

“Birthmark” offers a reflective variation on the Hanzo Hasashi motif with more prominent pianos and a mystical, magical electronic sheen. After an opening sequence of intense techno action, the final moments of “Sonya Blade” give her a lyrical motif for dancing, elegant strings, before emerging into a heroic power anthem for orchestra and choir. “Liu Kang” builds on the ideas from the end of “Sonya Blade” with similarly impressive writing, as well as some additional references to the Hanzo Hasashi theme; I especially like the bubbling, charming electronic passages that crop up after the 90 second mark, and the rather epic finale of the cue.

A lot of the score’s second half is given over to cue after cue of intense action, combination writing for the full orchestra, the choir, prominent electronics, heavy percussion, and references to one or more of the character themes. “Sub-Zero” and “Kabal” both reference the themes for both Bi-Han and Shang Tsung, while both “Kung Lao” and “Origins” are on the heroic side, and often reference the fluttering electronic percussion patterns of Raiden’s theme. “Goro,” the second half of “Arcana,” and “The Void” will likely be the most unpalatable cues for the majority of people, as Wallfisch goes down the road of a full-on industrial/electronic nightmare – groaning, growling, whining, and screeching – over the top of his orchestra. Some of this music brings back unhappy memories of parts of his scores for Blade Runner 2049 and Hellboy, but at least this music fits the character: Goro is, of course, a four-armed half-human half-dragon from another dimension!

Thankfully, this is counterbalanced by some tremendous action writing during the score’s finale. The first part of “Arcana” is terrific, and sees Wallfisch doing some fascinating, intricate stuff with the string section, while also bringing back ‘Techno Syndrome’ as part of the rhythmic core of the cue. This writing continues on into “Jax Briggs,” “The Tournament,” “I Am Scorpion,” and “We Fight as One,” all of which feature additional prominent performances of ‘Techno Syndrome’ as part of the action. Some of the percussion patterns Wallfisch employs are fiendish, and the intensity levels are through the roof, but he always gives the orchestra some opportunities to really shine. I have seen many people make accurate comparisons between this music and the music that Tom Holkenborg wrote for films like Mad Max, which may confuse some people considering how much I disliked that score, but to me the sophistication of Mortal Kombat is on another level. The creativity in the orchestral palette, the variation in the rhythmic content, the diversity in the thematic writing, and the density of the layering between the orchestra and the electronics and the choir, is significantly more impressive – hence the praise. The conclusive “Get Over Here” is a massive recapitulation of most of the score’s main ideas, and ends the album on a high.

While there are certainly parts of Mortal Kombat that will challenge, annoy, or perhaps even outright disturb listeners who are more attuned to more straightforward orchestral writing, I personally found a great deal of it to be thoroughly entertaining indeed. Benjamin Wallfisch has written a score which exists within the established musical parameters of the game and the genre – something he had to do – and fully embraces the electronica/EDM aspect of that. He then goes out of his way to combine that with writing for orchestra and chorus that is much more sophisticated than it has any right to be, while also incorporating several recognizable recurring thematic ideas. If you hate electronic dance music, if you hate prominent writing for synths, and if extended sequences of atonal electronic dissonance drives you distraction – then this score is not for you. Just don’t even listen. For anyone with perhaps a little more tolerance for that sort of thing, I would strongly recommend you use Mortal Kombat to test your might. Fight!

Buy the Mortal Kombat soundtracks from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Techno Syndrome 2021 (written by Olivier Adams, arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) (3:06)
  • Hanzo Hasashi (7:14)
  • Lord Raiden (2:24)
  • Bi-Han (2:42)
  • Shang Tsung (1:37)
  • Cole Young (1:41)
  • Birthmark (2:47)
  • Sonya Blade (4:23)
  • Kano v Reptile (2:59)
  • Liu Kang (5:59)
  • The Great Protector (2:28)
  • Sub-Zero (3:01)
  • Kung Lao (3:13)
  • Origins (3:08)
  • Kabal (2:59)
  • Goro (2:57)
  • Arcana (3:58)
  • Jax Briggs (2:34)
  • The Void (4:12)
  • The Tournament (5:00)
  • Sub-Zero v Cole Young (1:18)
  • I Am Scorpion (3:15)
  • We Fight as One (2:49)
  • Get Over Here (3:56)

Running Time: 70 minutes 50 seconds

Watertower Music (2021)

Music composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. Conducted by Brett Kelly and Christopher Gordon. Orchestrations by David Krystal. Recorded and mixed by Craig Beckett and Evan McHugh. Edited by Katrina Schiller and Tim Ryan. Album produced by Benjamin Wallfisch.

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