Skip to main content

Prepare to ingest.

Mortal Engines
(2018)

(SPOILERS) One of the all-time biggest flops, based on Deadline Hollywood’s estimates (the only competitors, in the upper range of price tags, are The Thirteen Warrior, John Carter, The Lone Ranger and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas), yet no one much seems to care either way. There wasn’t any real crowing about what an unforgiveable misfire this was (see John Carter), and it didn’t send any studios into bankruptcy. It just sort of happened, everyone shrugged, and moved on. Which fairly accurately sums up Christian Rivers’ Mortal Engines.

Part of the picture’s problem is that the premise is fundamentally ridiculous, and one must assume Peter Jackson, shielded from the masses in his New Zealand ivory tower, has entirely lost his eye for hit franchise material. It’s notable – although you wouldn’t know it, given how very Young Adult the casting is – that Philip Reeves’ series of novels received literary awards in the 9-11-year-old bracket, which is just about what you’d expect for a series concerning post-apocalyptic cities haring around the countryside. Add Junkie XL on the soundtrack and you have imagery that skirts dangerously close to Mad Max parody. Indeed, I couldn’t but continually think of Terry Gilliam’s The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Such is the lack of verisimilitude, one has to conclude that, rather than a ludicrously excessive live-action budget, Mortal Engines might have been better suited to the stop-motion world of Laika.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Hugo Weaving’s crazed Thaddeus Valentine and his attempts to gain dominion over rival cities on wheels through wielding the same deadly power source (MEDUSA, a quantum energy weapon) that did for civilisation in the distant past. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is out for revenge on Thaddeus for what he done to her mom, while Thaddeus’ daughter (Leila George) is blissfully unaware of daddy’s essential dodginess. Robert Sheehan is a hapless historian thrown in with fugitive Hester through the vagaries of circumstance, and together they try to stop the villain’s plans with the aid of sky pilot (not Cardinal) Fang (Jihae Kim). Yeah, it’s kind of “whatever”, isn’t it?

Performance-wise, there’s nothing to complain about. It’s patently obvious, however, that having everyone note how repulsive her facial scar is doesn’t make Hester remotely unattractive. Hilmar’s very much the straight hero, with Sheehan more the bookish sidekick bumbler/ love interest; you could quite imagine him being cast as Doctor Who in a few years’ time, in the more photogenic Tennant mould. Weaving chews scenery in the manner we’ve been used to for several decades now, and there’s a welcome showing from Patrick Malahide as his sometime boss.

Mortal Engines is exposition-heavy to begin with and intermittently throughout. It’s also weighed down by numerous set pieces clearly shot against blue screen. Rivers is definitely no effects supremo turned natural director in the manner of Neill Blomkamp (just don’t let the latter write his own scripts) as you’re constantly conscious of the artifice of the effects and that we’re on a sound stage.

The picture doesmanage a shift towards the genuinely engaging during the mid-section, however, with the introduction of cyborg Shrike (Stephen Lang), who raised Hester and is under the illusion she still wishes to become like him. As is often the case with the genre, what genuine pathos the picture has derives from a non-human character, and the proceedings promptly revert to type once he exits.

Indeed, the grand climax is a grand slog, as Thaddeus attacks the Shield Wall, a barrier to the City of London spreading its net amongst the Anti-Traction League (static settlements in Asia enjoying freedom). Lots of sound and fury signifying not a lot. There’s a showdown with Thaddeus, in which a Luke-Vader twist is revealed, but it has negligible impact; unlike Lucas’ original trilogy, Jackson’s production has entirely failed to capture the imagination with its characters and world, so it’s much too late to start at this late stage. Instead, the biggest takeaway is the desperation of non-Disney studios for franchise starters, so great that they’ll throw money at Jackson based on the success of one series and with a novice director attached. Mortal Engines is far from a disaster – except financially, obviously – but it never once gives you the impression that it had any potential as blockbuster series.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.