Mortal Engines (2018) Review

A VISUAL (YET PREPLEXINGLY BLAND)

DYSTOPIAN EPIC


 

Director Peter Jackson has quickly become a recognizable name in Hollywood. The New Zealand born native began his film career by developing horror-ish comedy features like 1987’s Bad Taste and 1989’s Meet the Feebles before heading into other venues, including 1992’s zombie comedy Braindead and 1995’s the psychological drama Heavenly Creatures. While those particular feature films were created by him and gave him some credibility as a film director, Jackson’s career didn’t skyrocket off until he was given the opportunity to direct The Lord of the Rings trilogy; a cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic. Acting as a passion project, Jackson helmed not one, not two, but three feature films (consisting of the three installments of Tolkien’s novelized trilogy of Hobbits, Elves, Orcs, Wizards, and the Ring of Power). To his credit, Jackson succeeded in bringing Tolkien’s immersive fantasy world to the big screen with the releases of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, The Two Towers in 2002, and The Return of the King in 2003, creating a massively huge fans base amongst moviegoers everywhere and universal acclaim. From there, Jackson worked on other projects such as 2005 remake of King Kong and 2009’s supernatural drama The Lovely Bones before returning back to Tolkien’s fantasy world once again to create The Hobbit trilogy; a cinematic three film adaptation of Tolkien’s prequel installment to The Lord of the Rings (i.e. An Unexpected Journey in 2012, The Desolation of Smaug in 2013, and The Battle of the Five Armies in 2014). In addition to his directorial work, Jackson has also dabbled in being a screenplay writer (for several of his directorial projects) as well as acting as a producer for several movies, including 2009’s small-scale sci-fi drama District 9, 2011’s animated feature The Adventure of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and 2012’s documentary film West of Memphis. Now, Universal Pictures (and Jackson’s Wingnut Films) and director Christian Rivers presents the latest big-budgeted epic motion picture (with Jackson producing the feature) with the movie Mortal Engines, based on the book of the same name by Phillip Reeve. Does this movie find its cinematic footing within its immersive world or does it flounder within its lofty ideas and barrage of CG visuals?

THE STORY


Taking place in a distant post-apocalyptic future of Earth where a paramount event known as the “Sixty Minute War” devastated human civilization and changed the geography of the world itself. Since that cataclysmic event, much of humanity has found salvation in forming mobile traction cities, roaming the planet’s lands scavenging for whatever resources they can find in order to survive. The largest of these cities (like London) are known as “predator cities”, with many (quite literally) feed on smaller traction cities, in accordance with a principle philosophy known as “municipal Darwinism”. However, there are those who opposed to this idea, most notably the Anti-Traction League, a civilization that remains static and protected by a massive and impregnable shield wall. As Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), London’s Head of the Guild of Historians, is nearly assassinated by a mysterious stowaway woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), her plans are foiled by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a lower-tier Londoner and apprentice historian. Hester manages to escape Valentine’s clutches, but inadvertently gets Tom kicked out of London along with her by means of dark connection between Hester and Valentine. Left with no real choice, Hester and Tom thusly form an alliance as a means of survival in this salvage world where its “kill or be killed”. Meeting new allies like elusive and Anti-Traction leader Anna Fang (Jilhae) and old enemies like Hester’s former zombie like guardian Shrike (Stephen Lang), Hester and Tom formulate a plan to stop Valentine, who is carrying out his secret plans to develop a powerful weapon that could change the fate of the planet

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Like many out there, I really didn’t know of Peter Jackson until he did the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Suffice to say, I’ve heard of his earlier works (especially Heavenly Creatures) and someday soon I might check them out and (who knows) possibly reviewing them. Still, his Lord of the Rings trilogy was incredibly awesome. Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a huge fantasy nerd, so I was completely immersed in all three movies. Even to this day, I still regard Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as one of my all-time favorite fantasy films (most notably The Fellowship of the Ring). Because of this (as you can imagine) I was elated when Jackson returned to his cinematic Middle-Earth world for The Hobbit trilogy and truly did make Tolkien’s simplistic novel into an expansive three-feature film epic (got to love all the Smaug scenes in those movies). Looking beyond his Middle-Earth endeavors, I did like his remake of King Kong (mostly due to the film’s recognizable cast and some of the creatively visual effects that inhabitant Skull Island in the movie) as well as his more smaller scale motion picture of Lovely Bones. Nowadays, Jackson, who also help establish several creative and visual effect departments (due to their involvement in feature films), can now look back and feel accomplished in his work and I personally look forward to his future endeavors on the horizon.

Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Mortal Engines, a 2018 film that Peter Jackson had a hand in creating. While I didn’t hear much about this movie online (i.e. its initial announcement or casting or anything like that), I remember I saw the film’s teaser trailer towards the end of 2017. Of course, the movie trailer didn’t show much, but got me interested in seeing the movie, especially since Peter Jackson was involved on the project (in some type of capacity) and had an intriguing look and design…. kind of reminded me a of a dystopian big-screen blockbuster like a Mad Max swagger. From there, I was interested in Mortal Engines, spending majority of the 2018 year semi-eager to see the film’s final product, especially with the movie’s continuing marketing campaign (other movie trailers and TV spots) as well as inherit hype from movie blogger / movie sites. Heck, I even placed Mortal Engines on my “Top 15 Most Anticipated Movies of 2018” (ranked #15 on that list). So finally, December 2018 arrived and I finally got the chance to see Mortal Engines in theaters. However, my review for this film sort of fell through the cracks as I was trying to play “catch up” on some of the November movies release. Now, I’m finally have the time to write my thoughts on this film. What did I think of it? Well, despite having an interesting premise, great visuals, and terrific world designs, Mortal Engines is a stiff sci-fi steampunk that lacks a strong narrative and characters builds. With such an ambitious project, the movie just leaves a hollow viewing experience….and that’s not a good thing.

As a side-note, Mortal Engines (as mentioned above) is based off of the first book a four-novel series by author Phillip Reeves (often referred to as “The Mortal Engines Quartet” or “Hungry City Chronicles” or the “Predator Cities Quartet”, but Reeves has objected to the latter two names. Unfortunately, while I do work in a bookstore, I didn’t know these books existed until a few months prior to the film’s release. Thus, I didn’t get a chance to read the first book, so my review is gonna be strictly based on the movie itself rather than comparsion the literary and cinematic representations of the story being told.

Contrary to what the film’s marketing campaign makes you believe when they say “Peter Jackson Presents”, director Peter Jackson did not direct this particular movie. While Jackson originally purchased the film adaptations rights for Mortal Engines (from author writer Philip Reeves) in 2009, the project was placed on hold as the director turned his gaze back towards Middle-Earth and reimagining Tolkien’s prequel story “The Hobbit” into an expansive epic and extension to what he already established in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. With attentions occupied in crafting The Hobbit trilogy, which took several years, the idea of creating Mortal Engines languished in limbo until 2016 when Jackson passed the directorial duties of the project to Christian Rivers, a longtime collaborator on Jackson’s projects as a storyboard artist, special effects, visual effects, and splinter unit directing.

Thus, Christian Rivers makes his directorial debut with Mortal Engines, with Jackson as a producer, writer, and secondary unit director for the large-budgeted project (Guess…Jackson need a little bit of a break after The Hobbit trilogy). Where Rivers actually excels in helming this big blockbuster adventure is in bringing a sense of scale and scope to the film’s proceedings. What do I mean? Well, Mortal Engines is not (by no means) a small motion picture and Rivers easily showcases how big and expansive this cinematic world, utilizing the grandiose atmosphere of the feature’s dystopian environment to tell this tale of heroes, villains, and some pretty nifty (and cool looking) larger-than-life mobile city chase sequences. There’s a sort of “Mad Max” feel throughout the movie as Rivers seems to try a capitalize on that particular interest (most notable taking cues from 2016’s Mad Max: Fury Road) in its appeal and motifs of a hardened and savage world of the not too distant future. The movie’s opening salvo is a perfect example, showcasing the film’s action aspects in the film’s first few minutes and how Rivers stages these sequences (from a visuals standpoint) is pretty good. Coupled with some imaginary settings, sci-fi futuristic nuances, and some industrial dystopian vibes of aesthetics and appearance and River crafts a pretty visually appealing blockbuster feature that’s large on scope and grandeur. Basically, if you’re a fan of adventure steampunk tales, Mortal Engines is that film you’ve been waiting for (and probably the best example of one).

As I mentioned above, Jackson helps pen Mortal Engines script (along with his wife Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens as co-writers on the project) and clearly makes the film’s narrative filled with a classic style of a hero’s journey, dropping us (the viewers) right in the middle of action and letting them events unfold of classic tropes of discovery, setbacks, and triumphs. All in all, it’s a satisfying written journey (on paper at least) that translates into big-screen blockbuster endeavor.

In terms of presentation, Mortal Engines is definitely a very solid and a well-made feature film, utilizing CG visual effects in order to bring Reeve’s sci-fi world of mobile traction cities and savage terrains to life on the big screen. As one can guess, the film’s visuals are highly impressive with plenty of imaginary scenes of effects wizardry being displayed on-screen. This is where the movie truly shines (and shines the brightest in my opinion), delivering some very unique and intricately well-designed This is clearly noticeable in the various traction cities (especially mammoth scale of London) that are featured throughout the movie as well as several aerial ships (Anna Fang’s ship is the best looking one of the bunch). Thus, the entire visual effects department should be commended for their computer wizardry on the movie as well as the entire art department for their creative talents (conceptually speaking) in bringing Reeve’s sci-fi dystopian world in a unique way. Additionally, the cinematography, which is done by Simon Raby, is also pretty good with plenty of great camera angles and usage of moviemaking trickery to capture some quite stunning and / or striking shots in the feature. Other noteworthy areas, including costume designs by Bob Buck and Kate Hawley, set decorations by Rosie Guthrie and Shane Vieau, and even the film’s editing by Jonathan Woodford-Robinson, must mentioned for their efforts on Mortal Engines, which aided in the movie’s visual background appeal and presentation. Lastly, the music’s film score, which was composed by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg), is really good and definitely does add to the many of the movie’s scenes in either driving for thrills in action sequences or softer character moments. Thus, even if you hate this movie, there’s no denying that the technical presentation of Mortal Engines is topnotch.

Unfortunately, Mortal Engines, looking beyond its visual aesthetics, falters underneath its own premise and doesn’t quite deliver on its own inherit hype and anticipation in making the jump from “page to screen”. Why? Well, for the starters, the main problem is the fact that this is Rivers’s first theatrical motion picture as a director. Yes, he’s worked alongside Jackson on several of his big projects, including Heavenly Creatures, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, and The Hobbit trilogy, in various roles, with Jackson (in turn) showing him “the ropes” of crafting a feature film. With Jackson’s blessing, this is probably why Rivers was chosen to direct Mortal Engines. However, the end result is a messy one as Rivers lacks the skill (as a director) for a cinematic tale such as Mortal Engines. I’m not ridiculing Rivers talents, but perhaps a small-scale film endeavor would’ve been best suited for his directorial debut. I mean…. look at what this movie calls for: an unfamiliar movie world (i.e world building), a great deal of visual effects, various characters (both major and minor), and a certain finesse of molding all that together in a compelling and entertaining way. This is where Rivers falters and lacks the directorial knowledge when approaching a cinematic project like this, especially one that demands a lot of blockbuster knowhow (due to the film’s size and scope). The film’s character builds are either one or two dimensional (more on that below), the pacing is off a more than few times, crucial pieces aren’t fully explained, and certain scenes are rather dull and underwhelming. Thus, the ambition and scale seem to exceed River’s talents as a director as the movie is riddled with certain key parts that either don’t work quite as well and / or lack the necessary context for which is needed.

In conjunction with that idea, a key contributing factor to that problem lies within the film’s screenplay, which (again) is written Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens. This trio (or a combination of two) has been the driving “behind the camera” force in the script / screenplay department of many of Jackson’s movie projects. Thus, it’s perplexing to find the screenplay for Mortal Engines to be muddled with confusing and vague understanding. What do I mean? Well, for one thing, the film’s screenplay has a hard time in trying express and / or examining Reeve’s world. Given the fact that this is set in an unfamiliar cinematic world of vast mobile cities acting as “predators” to smaller cities in an era that takes place a thousand years after a cataclysmic event, there’s a lot of world building that a story like Mortal Engines requires and (unfortunately) the screenplay seems to fumble in its attempt to try and explain many of these narrative elements. And then there is breaking of the movie cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell” that the screenplay (along with Rivers) use frequently in the film, which adds up to a lot of expositional scenes that feels rather clunky and uninspiring. This (again) continues to add a lot of frustration and sometimes more confusion to the narrative being told as we (the viewers) get more information than need or (in a lot of the movie’s case) not enough detail. This can be seeing in a lot of areas, including the mentioning several key plot points (Large traction Cities, the Anti-Traction League (and their land beyond their massive shield wall), the “Sixty Minute War”, etc.). A better understand (or rather clarification) on these particular ideas as well as better flowing narrative could have benefited in making Mortal Engines better.

Even if that was the case, Mortal Engines’s narrative (as a whole) is very derivate to many other noteworthy feature films out there. What I mean is that there a little bit of everything; ranging from Star Wars, to The Matrix, to The Hunger Games, to Divergent, to Mad Max, and a few other ones as well. While its common practice for cinematic narratives to be “inspired” from similar and / or past movies, it shouldn’t rely to heavily on them as the current feature’s story should flourish on its own merits. Sadly, Mortal Engines does not and feels completely derivate throughout majority of the movie, compiling more of a cobbled-up version of those films mentioned rather than feeling genuinely organic and / or creative in narrative department. Thus, execution of it all is lacking and comes off as formulaic. Again, I find this all quite perplexing as Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens have proven to develop some great screenplays (i.e the two Middle Earth trilogies) in expanding and explaining in bringing these fictional worlds (story-wise) to the big screen. This, couple with River inexperience in the director’s chair makes Mortal Engines disappointing and not as desirable as what it could’ve been. As a side-note, the final moments of the feature are also painfully dull and almost “eye rolling” to a certain degree, which is a terrible way to end the film on.

The cast in Mortal Engines is up for the task in playing these various characters in this expansive derelict futuristic world of predator cities and hardened scavengers. Unfortunately, majority of the characters (if not all) are stock-like personas and builds, with Rivers (along with Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens) sacrificing character development in favor of visual effects appeal. The result renders much of the characters bland to the touch, with only the actors and actress selected to trying to do with what little material there given. Unfortunately, some of the cast can’t help elevate these particular characters, which makes these cinematic iteration of Reeves characters static two-dimensional ones. This is most apparent in the film’s two main protagonist leads of Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy, who are played by actress Hera Hilmar and actor Robert Sheehan. Hilmar, known for her roles in Da Vinci’s Demons, Anna Karenina, and An Ordinary Man, definitely has the physical look (deep embedded facial scar to boot) of a battle hardened / steely demeanor out for vengeance and does so fairly good in that role of Hester Shaw. Unfortunately, most of her dialogue lines are handled rather clunky and / or heavily exposition monologues, which makes the character boring and rather disappointing. Hilmar does what she can, but the end result is far less underwhelming that what movie wants her iteration of Hester Shaw to be. Likewise, Sheehan, known for his roles in Fortitude, Love / Hate, and The Mortal Instrument: City of Bones, barely makes for a passible second main character in the movie. Of the two, he’s the weaker one (in both acting and character) and ends up being more annoying. Plus, it doesn’t help the fact that both Hilmar and Sheehan have very little on-screen chemistry with each other, which doesn’t help the somewhat vague (and clunky) attempts of the feature trying to find romance ties in Hester and Tom. Thus, try as they might, I personally wasn’t invested (nor cared about) their respective characters, which being the film’s duo heroes, isn’t a good thing.

Looking beyond the film’s two central characters, the large number of supporting players in the movie get even less time develop and don’t really “break the mold” beyond their onset narrative machinations and premise setup. This is most prevalent in the character of Thaddeus Valentine, the film’s main antagonist and who is played by actor Hugo Weaving. Known for his roles in The Matrix trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Hacksaw Ridge, Weaving is the real big name “seasoned” actor veteran of the feature, anchoring Mortal Engines in his performance. Unfortunately, while Weaving’s talents are duly noted and he gets the character of Valentine down pat (with great ease I might add), the actual character of Valentine isn’t developed beyond the classic “mustache twirling” villain archetype. Thus, Weaving’s Valentine feels like a missed opportunity and could’ve been something much more (in both villainy and character understanding). Who also fairs along that very same path is the character of Anna Fang, the deadly assassin-like agent of the Anti-Traction League, who is played by actress Jihae. Known for her roles in Mars and 2B, Jihae, like Weaving, definitely looks and acts the part beautifully as Anna Fang, showcasing that sort of “femme fatale” badass character throughout the feature. Although, despite Jihae’s acting, the character seems too derivate from other similar character archetypes, most notably to characters Trinity and / or Morpheus from The Matrix trilogy , which makes the character of Anna Fang less interesting and (again) could’ve been better handled if the character was allowed to come into her own (in both script handling and acting-wise).

The same can be said with the character of Shrike, the last of an undead battalion of soldiers known as Stalkers, who were war casualties re-animated with machine parts, and Hester’s guardian. Played by actor Stephen Lang, known for his roles in Avatar, Don’t Breathe, and Tombstone, Shrike is definitely a visual striking character and happens to be one of the most memorable characters in the entire film. However, despite Lang’s haunting performance in the role, the character build of Shrike is a tad hallow and kind of feels a bit “out of place’ with the story of Valentine and his ambitions of finding Hester Shaw. There’s definitely a character backstory, but the film’s constraints make it nearly-impossible to fully serve Shrike’s storyline thread. Thus, the character becomes more secondary and gets pushed aside. This is a shame as I would’ve rather seeing an entire feature film surrounding the character of Shrike and his relationship with Hester Shaw. Who fairs even worse in the movie are the characters of Katherine Valentine (Thaddeus’s daughter) and a Londoner apprentice engineer Bevis Pod. Played by actress Leila George (Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? and The Long Home) and actor Ronan Raftery (Moone Boy and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), these two characters have a sub-plot together in the film, but gets dropped halfway through, which renders the characters (in the movie) completely useless. In fact, there entire narrative thread could be omitted from the movie and Mortal Engines could still have the same outcome.

The rest of the cast consists of minor supporting characters, including actor Patrick Malahide (Game of Thrones and The Long Kiss Goodnight) as the Mayor of London Magnus Crome, actor Colin Salmon (Arrow and Limitless) as Tom’s historian boss Chudleigh Pomeroy, actress Sarah Peirse (Dog’s Head Bay and Heavenly Creatures) as Valentine’s assistant Dr. Twix, actor Leifur Sigurdarson (Tears of Valhalla) as one of Ana Fang’s aviator comrade Nils Lindstrom, actor Kee Chan (Mission: Impossible II and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith) as presiding ruler of the static city beyond the shield wall Governor Kwan, and actress Caren Pistorius (Offspring and Slow West) as Hester’s deceased mother Pandora Shaw. While all these actors and actresses offer up good acting talents in the movie (as well from their previous projects), the characters are minor supporting ones; offering up their characters to help certain characters and / or scenes move along. Plus…much like what I said above, some of these characters sort of get lost in the movie (again, a cast of thousand minor characters doesn’t help the film).

FINAL THOUGHTS


The line “In the great game of survival, this is checkmate” is echoed throughout the movie as Hester Shaw attempts to unravel Valentine’s ultimate endgame plan in the movie Mortal Engines. Director Christian River’s directorial debut film sees the desolate war-torn future world of author Philip Reeves come to life on the silver screen, creating a very large blockbuster feature that has plenty of eye-catching visuals within its steampunk / Mad Max environment. While the feature boasts some stunning visuals, intriguing concept designs, and a classic hero journey trope, majority of the film fells underwhelming, derivative, and hollow, which is most notable in several key areas (i.e. directing, screenplay, and character developments). To me, I thought this movie was just okay, but a little disappointed with the final result. The visual effects and world-building concept were solid, but I can’t help the fact that I really didn’t care for any of the characters nor the muddled (and sometimes perplexing) storyline narrative. I just felt like this film was a missed opportunity. Thus, my recommendation for Mortal Engines would be both an “iffy choice” as some might like (especially the fans of Steampunk tales), while others won’t with a favorable “skip it” in their minds. However, I might purchase the movie one day (in 4K Blu-Ray format and at a very steep, steep discount) for simple its pure visual flourishes. Given how the movie ends, it sort of concludes the narrative being told, but leaves room for the possibility of continuation sequel film, which would be the second installment in Reeves quartet series titled “Predator’s Gold”. However, given the mixed reception by critics and moviegoers and the failed box office numbers results, this scenario seems unlikely. Thus, the sad disappointment of Mortal Engines is that the movie could’ve been something much more if it was directed by someone capable (i.e. Peter Jackson). Unfortunately, the end result of this very ambitious movie is something that seems half-balked, unable to find compelling nuances and characters within its vast cinematic dystopian world of mobile cities, dominance of power, and the survival of freedom.

2.8 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice / Skip It)

 

Released On: December 14th, 2018
Reviewed On: January 29th, 2019

Mortal Engines  is 128 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action

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