I don’t know about you, but I always find it somewhat awkward when I settle down to watch a big, lush movie based on a popular series of young adult novels I’ve never heard of and it turns out that I think the film is a bit shit. Have I missed something? Would I have enjoyed it more if I had read the book? Is there hints to a continuing adventure that I’m blatantly unaware of due to pitiful lack of knowledge in the source material?
That’s exactly the thoughts that flitted through my exasperated brain as I caught up with Mortal Engines; the lavish adaptation of Philip Reeve’s book of the same name which was largely sold on the fact that it was co-written and produced by Kiwi, fantasy demigod himself Peter Jackson, but about halfway through I gave up worrying and tried to enjoy this dystopian, science fiction, fantasy on it’s own merits… Bad idea.
It is, as I mentioned earlier, the dystopian future and the vast majority of mankind has been obliterated leaving their descendants to roar around the country side in massive mobie cities that cannibalize each other for resources like Howl’s Moving Castle has had a bad dose of Darwinism – talk about being a city on the go…. The vast dreadnought known as the City Of London has crossed over into Europe in order to satisfy it’s endless need to keep it’s people fed and itself endlessly moving, but after it consumes it’s latest town-on-wheels, it picks up a passenger it didn’t expect. That passenger is the deeply scarred Hester Shaw, a young woman desperate to gain revenge on the fopp-haired Thaddeus Valentine, Head of the Guild of Historians, who apparently slew her mother years ago in order to steal “old tech” she had unearthed. After her attempt fails she finds herself cast out of London and lost in the Outworlds (aka. the surrounding area) with well meaning apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy in tow. It’s around about here that things get decidedly chaotic: Hester and Tom have a brush with some slave traders and meet up with the charismatic Anna Fang, member of the Anti-Traction League for some much needed exposition; however, in order to keep Hester off his back, Valantine has released something referred to as a Stalker named Shrike (a sort of hunter/killer robot zombie… y’know what, don’t ask) to settle a personal matter the creature has with our heroine. While all this is going on, Valantine is planning to create a super-weapon from old weapons tech in order to blow up the inpenetrable wall that divides Asia from the rest of the world so London is free to gobble up the “static cities” that reside there. Can all these plot points make enough sense for a long enough period of time for us to give a single, solitary shit about the bits that happen between the impressive world building (eg. the film)?
According to Wikipedia, Mortal Engines is one of the biggest box office bombs in history, a while this shouldn’t be an indicator of the movie’s quality, you simultaneously can’t be surprised – for despite it’a thoroughly realised world that contains an insane amount of detail, Mortal Engines is as ironically as hollow as an empty gas tank and has half the energy. The main problem turns out to be painfully obvious, because it’s the same old case of filmmakers crushing down a book to the point where the story and characters simply have no room to breathe which has marred many an adaption in the past during it’s transition over the years. What is surprising is that it’s the Lord Of The Rings writing team of Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh that’s caused it, which makes you wonder if they had their fingers crossed for their usual extended edition home release to address the balance. As the film relentlessly gallops through it’s expansive universe as it mercilessly tries to stuff it into a barely two hour plus running time with all the finesse of Rod Hull trying to corral Emu, you have to try and care about everything around you on the fly with whole characters dropping in and out of the film with alarming frequency. What’s the point of Valentine’s daughter, or Tom’s mechanic friend, or most of the pilots from an aerial city if you struggle to remember what they look like, let alone what their point is.
The performances are all competent, each featuring large amounts of Dickension fluster, but once you recognize that Robert Sheeham from Misfits and The Umbrella Academy is playing Tom, it’s distractingly hard not to expect him to suddenly imbibe a massive amount of drugs or randomly accuse someone of being a panty sniffer. Everyone else is just good enough to get the crowded plotlines shuffling along but forgettable enough to also get lost in them and it’s not often that someone such as Hugo Weaving gets bogged down in some vanilla flavoured villainy.
It’s actually a shame, because the world that Weta has created is incredibly fascinating and the design of this Death Star version of London is perversely fascinating to look at with chunks of familiar monuments jutting randomly out of it’s bulk with a piece of Big Ben here and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral there like it’s been rebuilt by a deranged giant with a lego set – but cool tech and lavish set design isn’t everything and while the movie isn’t as hatefully irritating as, say, Jupiter Ascending, it ends up being as memorable as a day working in the Rohypnol testing room.
I’m sure if I had a line on anyone who had read the book, they could clue me in in great detail on how the changes have bastardized their beloved story (for example Hester’s scar in the book makes her look like she’s French kissed a hedge trimmer in an attempt by the author to challenge the stereotype of beautiful heroes in fantasy fiction), but as a Mortal Engine virgin it’s just yet another example of an original sci-fi property blowing an exorbitant amount of cash to realise it’s complicated world and then tanking hard at the box office which makes it even harder for other original properties to get made.
Even though Peter Jackson isn’t the director here (the honors went to King Kong FX boffin Chistian Rivers) the film was made with the majority of the crew from The Hobbit and after the mixed reaction to that particular trilogy, not to mention Jackson’s own divisive tackling of The Lovely Bones, the New Zealand auteur could really use a critical hit under his belt.
With a longer run time dedicated to not making it’s characters feel like very expensive cardboard cutouts, Mortal Engines could have been something rather special, but instead this brand new world stalled right out of the gate.