In a post apocalyptic steampunk world where cities are mobile and consume smaller cities to survive, two people try to stop a conspiracy.
When I first saw the teaser for this film way back in the day, I thought to myself, “that looks like a really cool idea, but there is no way that it will translate well to screen.” I knew that this film was based on the first novel in Philip Reeve’s quartet Mortal Engines, and while I found the story to be an interesting concept, I never went out of my way to read the books (though I may now). Like many fantasy novel adaptations this film suffers from the problem of being an adaptation of a fantasy novel. What do I mean by that?
Books give readers a couple hundred pages to absorb the worlds and the characters. Movies are limited to a couple of hours. Fantasy films are burdened with having to build a world quickly, and that world needs to be unique and fantastical, but at the same time realistic enough for the viewer to engage; the film must provide compelling characters that don’t follow certain tropes; and the story can’t replicate “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” lest ye risk the wrath of the nerds… The film also has to generate enough box office in order to warrant an expensive price tag (“Mortal Engines” is set to loose over $100 million, according to this article by Variety). It’s hard to convince people who aren’t a fan of fantasy films to see a film that ‘looks weird’, and this film certainly didn’t have the draw of some more popular fantasy or science fiction titles. It’s no wonder this film flopped.
Much like other big budget sci/fi fantasy flops of late like “Jupiter Ascending” (2015), “Gods of Egypt” (2016), “Conan the Barbarian” (2011), “Robin Hood” (2018), and “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (2017), these films will be seen by a few die hard fantasy fans, and even they will forget them within a few months. Show me one person that says they can remember all of the plot points from “Warcraft” (2016), and I’ll show you a liar. As much as I love the fact that people keep trying to bring fantasy films to the screen, I have to remember that even though these films are seeing a rise in popularity, this genre has sadly been plagued with far more failures than successes. This middling movie is nothing remarkable. It looks good. But that’s about all I can say.
This movie’s plot is jumbled, and the storyline feels rushed; there’s just too much they’re trying to tell us at once. Remember David Lynch’s abysmal adaptation of “Dune” (1984)? In that film there was a narrator that guided the viewer through the entire movie because the scenes strung together made no coherent sense whatsoever. This film isn’t quite so bad as that, but I kept having flashbacks to it, because every two or three scenes the characters stop and dump a huge amount of exposition on us. If characters have to constantly stop to tell us what is going on, then the worldbuilding isn’t done as well as it should be. Not that I want to play favorites, but look at another recent sci-fi film that I feel was unjustly criticized, “Alita: Battle Angel” (2019)- the way that film built it’s world was fluid; it did so in the background while you just eased yourself into the world. This movie just crams info down your throat.
Filmmakers have a general rule of Show-Don’t-Tell, which is to say, if you can show it on screen without having a character explicitly detail what it is that’s happening, the film will almost always be better for it. Having a character stare at the screen and tell me their back story all at once isn’t exciting; it’s quite the opposite actually. If you reveal a character slowly, you build intrigue, but this movie doesn’t do that. It introduces characters, tells us everything about them and then moves on.
The plot also felt jumbled and rushed. They could’ve stretched the story out a little bit more, flushed out the characters, and I might’ve cared… maybe. The problem was, our POV character, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, “Mute” (2018)) isn’t that compelling of a character, nor is Sheehan that amazing of an actor. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, “Anna Karenina” (2012)) was a pretty cool character, and Hilmar herself did a fine job acting for most of the scenes, unfortunately I don’t think she had quite enough charisma to carry the film by herself. Additionally, many of the smaller parts were played by actors who felt out of place on the big screen, and whose talents would probably be better served on a SciFi Channel show. Hugo Weaving (“V for Vendetta” (2005)) was good as always, but he also seemed to not be taking it quite as seriously as say, his role in “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001).
Did I hate this movie? Nope. Would I recommend it? Nope. Am I glad I watched it? I guess I got a few chuckles out of it.
If you’re a huge fan of fantasy, like myself, then you could give this a go, but unless you’re an absolute diehard fan you can probably skip this and you wont be missing anything at all. I thought this had a few cool ideas and a few interesting set pieces, but I know for most it is just another schlocky fantasy film that most will have forgotten by the end of the year.
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