Mortal Engines

You might’ve figured a new sci-fi/fantasy produced and written by Peter Jackson and his fellowship (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens), and directed by his storyboard artist/effects guy since DEAD ALIVE Christian Rivers, would be a pretty big deal. I had hoped to see it in 3D, but it came out the same week as THE MULE and SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE and then the next week I wanted to see AQUAMAN, MARY POPPINS RETURNS and BUMBLEBEE and since the movie flopped the showtimes dropped precipitously and it was gone before I got to it. Plus, everybody said it sucked.

Wrong! I am happy to report that MORTAL ENGINES is pretty fuckin cool! It’s based on a young adult book, and there are some costumes and characters that follow a sort of steampunk or HUNGER GAMES city dweller style that I’m not into it, but it’s an adventure in an interesting world with cool characters and the spectacular effects of Weta at their best.

The movie centers around futuristic London, which is a “predator city,” meaning the whole fucking thing drives around the wastelands like a giant tank looking for resources, which they get by “ingesting” smaller cities to steal their machines and citizens. In the opening scene they chase down a small mining town and swallow it up. When I saw the Londoners on the fancy top deck watching the chase and cheering I fell in love with the movie.

This sort of mortal engine kombat is called “Municipal Darwinism,” and the “anti-tractionist” rebels who fight to protect “static cities” are demonized as terrorists. Our heroine, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, THE FIFTH ESTATE), is on neither side. She’s a lone wolf intent on assassinating London’s golden boy Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, V FOR VENDETTA), Head of the Guild of Historians, for killing her mom. Hester, wearing a scarf over her lower face that manages to both cover her scars and make her look like an anarchist, manages to get on board and take a stab at it, but the attempt is foiled by low level apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES – no relation). He starts out way too Newt Scamander-y for my tastes, but at least tones it down a little as he becomes the leading man.

Despite his heroism, Tom is thrown off the city Selina-Kyle-style for having discovered too much about Valentine’s plan to rebuild a superweapon with the “old tech” he’s been gathering. So Hester and Tom become reluctant partners climbing through the enormous tread tracks left by the city, meeting different allies and opponents, trying to stop Valentine’s evil plan.

The opening city chase is incredible and unlike anything I’ve seen before. It brings to mind some kind of cross between a giant robot battle and FURY ROAD (partly, I’m sure, because the score is by Junkie XL.)

But the best part of the movie is Shrike (Stephen Lang, BAND OF THE HAND – I had no idea it was him until reading it just now), a monster that Valentine’s people catch in a box and then release at his command when they realize it’s after Hester, whose name it won’t stop screaming. Shrike is a top shelf Weta digital creation, like those cool orc type guys in the HOBBIT movies, and he’s some combination of robot and dead flesh, a zombie with green headlights embedded in his eye sockets. They say he’s a “resurrected man,” “the last of the Lazarus Squad,” and he comes at her like a Terminator. In one scene an entire city has to be evacuated just because of the damage he does trying to get at Hester.

If he was just a monster chasing after her he’d already be cool, but he’s even better once you learn his backstory and his motive.

Second best supporting character is Anna Fang (South Korean singer Jihae), a badass rebel who shows up dressed fresh and kicking ass like an escapee from the MATRIX sequels. I think aside from Hester’s mouth scarf, Fang is the only character who wears red, and also the only one with a red airship. Making a whole color hers, like Prince. One movie I was reminded of a little bit was NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND, with all these cool, elegant flying machines and dwellings in styles familiar more from artwork than live action movies.

A friend of mine couldn’t get past the premise – he thought they needed to explain why the hell they would move around like that, when it must be so wasteful. To me that’s part of the beauty of it. People ask the same thing about ROAD WARRIOR – if gas is so precious, why are they always driving around in circles? Well, why do countries keep invading Afghanistan? Why do gun massacres only make people buy more guns? Why do we keep burning carbon? Because humans don’t always do the smart thing.

I’m probly not paraphrasing my friend’s objection accurately. He said he wasn’t looking for realism, just internal logic. But I feel like if cities chasing and eating each other isn’t logical then I don’t need logic. The outlandishness is the joy of it.

When I saw the trailer I thought Hester looked like a character Milla Jovovich would’ve played in a less expensive version. They would’ve had to rewrite her to be much older, but maybe with her name on the poster it would’ve made its money back. The good news is that even though this is from the first in a series of four books, the story stands completely on its own. I checked Wikipedia to make sure it was only adapted from the one book and not all of them, since it didn’t have a “tune in next time, folks” cliffhanger like ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL or HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE.

I’m not gonna claim I give a shit about Valentine’s daughter (Leila George, MOTHER MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER?) finding out the truth or her relationship with the hunky dude with the very HUNGER GAMESy name of Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery, THE SIEGE OF JADOTVILLE), whatever that shit was about. But that’s okay. I’d put up with three boring Bevis Pod subplots if that was required to get to the Shrike scenes. This is a thoroughly unusual movie infused with pockets of greatness. It can’t help but catch on eventually.

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 21st, 2019 at 10:43 am and is filed under Fantasy/Swords, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Mortal Engines”

  1. Thrilled to hear this. It looked like something I’d be into and now I’m looking forward to it again.

  2. I kinda expected it to be good or at least cool and entertaining, but let’s be honest, mankind has moved on from Young Adult Chosen One stories, so there was no chance in hell that this was gonna be a success in 2018.

  3. I still can’t get past my immediate reaction to the first trailer which was “This looks like a SUPER SERIOUS version of The Crimson Permanent Assurance”. I may eventually catch it on home video, but I suspect I’ll be laughing every time I see mobile buildings…

  4. Well now I’m looking forward to it…

    I thought it was weird a new PJ movie was coming out and I barely saw any ads for it. In fact outside a poster, I saw nothing for this one except for bad reviews when it did come out.

    “A friend of mine couldn’t get past the premise – he thought they needed to explain why the hell they would move around like that, when it must be so wasteful. To me that’s part of the beauty of it. People ask the same thing about ROAD WARRIOR – if gas is so precious, why are they always driving around in circles? Well, why do countries keep invading Afghanistan? Why do gun massacres only make people buy more guns? Why do we keep burning carbon? Because humans don’t always do the smart thing.”

    Surprised you didn’t mention the ‘ol chest nugget smarter-than-though “film fans” used to always bring up in regards to Romero’s Zombie movies: “Why if it’s this much after NIGHT they haven’t started decaying.” [puts on smug grin and crosses arms]

    Almost every AICNer was using that one when LAND was about to come out.

  5. The Undefeated Gaul

    March 21st, 2019 at 12:31 pm

    I kinda liked this too, and indeed Shrike is by far the best thing in the whole movie. It’s funny, I read the book once, only the first one, and I had the exact same reaction I have now with the film. Fun concept, enjoyable story while it lasts, but ultimately forgettable and not good enough to have any interest in seeing how the story continues from here.

    Btw, did I misunderstand or was the prison entirely unrelated to Valentine? Surely they didn’t release Shrike at his command. I thought he just got a tip that some guys captured something weird and he went to check it out, and when it seemed Shrike would be useful to him, he fucking torpedoed the entire prison, killing hundreds, just to free the monster. I thought it was a pretty good “how evil is he?” type moment for the character – one of the few memorable moments in the film for me.

  6. I was lucky enough to catch this in a pretty good theater with my wife, before Aquaman and Mary Poppins Returns relegated it to the “hi-fi closet” of most theaters that still carried it. I will grant it’s not the most original story in some of its plot points, but Jackson, WETA and crew really nail the visuals and atmosphere so well that I was completely pulled in 3 minutes into the movie. Having also seen it on home video I can say it holds up really well and could end up as yet another of those movies that bombed horribly at release but eventually found its audience. I wish it had done a bit better at the box office because the artistry behind the Shrike scenes alone deserves to be rewarded.

    Kryten, I also had the same “CRIMSON PERMANENT ASSURANCE” expectations about the film, and there are a couple of quick scenes as an entire town packs up and “gets out of dodge” that came pretty close to that. There’s a satirical undercurrent to the movie (not too overt, but it’s there) that also lends itself to that mindset. I will say the movie follows the same rules that the Pythons claim to have used: identify a ridiculous situation then pursue the logic of that situation. These moving cities feel very lived-in and the characters very dimensional (with a few exceptions), and that helps to sell the concept in a way that a two-minute trailer just couldn’t.

    Vern, I also think it’s interesting you single out Valentine’s daughter and Bevis Pod’s (heh) relationship as the weakest part of the movie. *** SPOILERS FOLLOW *** The storyline wasn’t too prominent through most of the movie, which I appreciated since they seemed like minor characters, but towards the end Pod (heh) suddenly just vanishes and not even a rewatch helped reveal his fate. I haven’t read the book, but I suspect this storyline was heavily toned down from a previous cut, and I’m wondering if Pod (hah hah) may even have been killed dramatically in a previous cut of the movie. If so, probably a good call to just move on.

  7. Wow the very existence of this film somehow completely passed me by until now, but this sounds really fun. I kind of maybe get Vern’s friend’s complaint, but maybe the “buy-in” was just too much to ask for them. I forget where I first heard that phrase (as related to stories and not card games at least), but I mean, you’re being asked to buy a certain set of circumstances without too much question at the beginning of any story (like, action movies where you have to accept that people can take huge amounts of damage and the cops never stop anything, or time travel movies where you gotta buy that time travel exists, or romantic comedies where you gotta buy that huge coincidences contrive to bring lovers together) and for some folks there comes a point where, for whatever reason, they just don’t buy it anymore. My wife is that way with basically any swords and sorcery fantasy type stuff, it just doesn’t click with her, which is too bad for me. Hell, I’m almost there at the idea anyone would ever name a character “Bevis” if they had any other option.

  8. My breaking point in terms of not being able to accept a premise, are parellel universes, that are populated with copies of the characters from the “real” world, although everything else is different. There are so many variables that lead to the creation of a human being as it is, that even “Hey, it’s just fantasy” won’t make me accept it.

  9. Gaul – It’s sounds like I probly misremembered or misunderstood it, but wasn’t there a scene where he told them to release Shrike and they asked “Are you sure?”

  10. Okay, you sold me. This does sound like something I’d like. Although it still seems like a huge miscalculation to think anyone would care about a huge adaptation of a book they’ve never heard of produced by but not directed by Peter Jackson, their loss could be our gain.

  11. Like geoffreyjar and The Kurgan, I don’t think I heard anything about this movie. I’m not sure I even heard the name, but if I did, I must have confused it with the Mortal Instruments (which is a terrible series of books, in my opinion, that spawned a terrible movie and an even worse tv series). But going by the review, this sounds awesome, like something I would really like. I would have been interested in seeing something like this in theaters if I knew about it, so there was definitely a failure of marketing on this one. It’s on Amazon Prime, so I’ll check it out this weekend.

  12. I very much enjoyed the crazy rolling cities. I do wish they would make a full set of four movies with this world. I’ve played just enough Bioshock:Infinite to get vibes from that halfway through, with the floating in the sky stuff. There were moments when it seemed like the movie wanted the leads to have a little more charisma than they portrayed. But so what. I got to see a mecha-Frankenstein’s monster tear shit up, in a touching Pixar-esque way. Worth it!

  13. I also enjoyed this. Cool visuals, some great action, fine story and characters. And Shrike, who is awesome.

    It’s weird it flopped so terribly, because it seems like such a crowdpleaser. But the marketing was admittedly pretty awful, and there was very little of it. Which is kinda crazy, because you could make amazing trailers and TV spots from all the epic, distinctive SFX action set pieces from the film. But they just didn’t.

  14. The premise and rolling cities remind me of this intro…

  15. The Undefeated Gaul

    March 22nd, 2019 at 5:02 am

    Vern – I’m not 100% sure, as I will admit the film is fading from memory already, but it could be that one of his own men on the aircraft asked him if he was sure he wanted to release Shrike, since he was obviously very dangerous and they were told it took a lot of men to capture him. However, it seemed to me the prison was not affiliated with London – otherwise why would Valentine destroy it entirely instead of simply ordering the warden to let Shrike go? Of course it could be that it would’ve required some paperwork that Valentine just didn’t feel like doing, but that was my interpretation in any case.

  16. I saw this movie only because of Vern’s recommendation, and it might be my favorite movie from last year. I stayed away in theaters because I’m burned out on both YA and Peter Jackson (and Moviepass basically stopped working by then), but I’ll go on record as saying this is my favorite YA movie and favorite Peter Jackson movie (yes I know he didn’t direct it but this is to PJ what Con Air is to Michael Bay – a knockoff that’s head and shoulders better than the real thing. Also, Christian Rivers seems to actually care about characters and story, not just how many kewl ways you can have bodies violently bouncing off of things).

    Anyways, this movie has everything. Fun and coherent action sequences. Wild and inventive world-building. Understandable yet nasty villain. Best CGI character yet in Shrike. The most charming and involving YA love story yet, even though this is way more Fury Road than Twilight. An Asian character unlike any I’ve ever seen before in American cinema. An actual ending that doesn’t leave you hanging and a runtime of two hours minus credits. Where has this movie been all my life?

    Side note: I also had no idea Shrike was Stephen Lang until the credits – I totally figured it was Bill Nighy or someone. I actually like that you could completely cut out his entire character and subplot and the story would be pretty much intact, but then again why would you ever want to do that? It’s like the world’s most delicious cherry on top of an already incredible sundae.

  17. Count me among the people who couldn’t afford the buy-in on this one. It sounds like an anime plot. I fucking HATE anime plots. Couple that with my utter eye-rolling reaction to yet another post-apocalyptic blondish teen chosen one narrative and I basically forgot it even existed two seconds after hearing about it. Plus there’s some completely unmerited impatience with Jackson. You’ve only got so many movies left in you at this pace, Pete. Like, what? Five or six? Tops? You’re wasting one of those slots on this generic YA bullshit that even its fans have probably moved on from by now? It feels like such a waste. I’m not trying to tell him what to do with his life but there’s gotta be a better idea than this out there.

    But I should have known that there would be treasures hidden in even the lamest concept this team decides to tackle. (But then I remember that other novel adaptation with the dead girl and I question the veracity of that claim.) But I guess I’ll have to check out what’s so fucking special about this Shrike character. Still images give absolutely no inkling. He looks like the last Dr. Doom. But I guess at this point I should have faith in the Weta people.

    I just wish they’d pick projects that didn’t seem so lame on the surface that I’m not even curious about what’s underneath. This and ALITA make this the year of the Oscar-winning megadirector putting all his chips into producing a gigantic steampunky epic that uses the very latest in technology to seem instantly dated. I’m not sure it’s a good trend.

  18. Damn, you made me wanna see this now!

    Time & time again I’m finding that whether I spend my time on a film I’m mezzo mezzo about, I’ll see what Vern has to say, as our tastes usually align and I know if things are worth my time. Thanks man!

  19. It’s always bummed me out that steampunk shit never seems to break into the mainstream, as for me it’s one of the coolest things ever.

    I’m sure WETA wanted to make a steampunk movie for years and years and this was it…. and it tanked.

    But I didn’t see this in theaters either so I’m part of the problem, but to be fair it did come and go in a flash.

  20. I watched this tonight and it was very cool. I regret having passed it by, I would have wanted to support something this audacious. The world was super cool, what with the cities on wheels, the flying cities, the airships, the wastelands — it was just jam-packed with cool shit, and it moved along at a good clip but without feeling rushed. I didn’t much care for the two main characters, though, they felt like YA templates, and none of the supporting characters outside of Shrike were particularly memorable to me. (The resistance leader had a really interesting and distinctive look, but otherwise didn’t make much of an imprint).

  21. Stacy Livitsanis

    March 23rd, 2019 at 8:47 am

    Glad some people are liking this. For me though, MORTAL ENGINES happened in front of my eyes but never once reached my brain. A few cool visuals are meaningless when none of the characters are remotely engaging (exactly the same problem with VALERIAN). Didn’t care about this world or anything that happened in it. A weak retread of stale ideas given a shiny new coat that completely failed to ignite the slightest interest. This movie floated away on a cloud and will never be seen or thought of again. Meanwhile, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is still inspiring such waves of rapture I went to see it for the fifth time in the cinema this week. The intangibility and inherent subjectivity of artistic appreciation persists. And really, who would rather it didn’t? No-one wants art to be reduced to a quantifiable equation. “We’ve found it! The equation that equals a ‘correct’ movie. Now all movies will be exactly the fucking same.”

  22. This was really good. How did both mainstream marketing and my industry PR contacts fail to tell me how many things I like are in this movie? Maybe “Mad Max meets Sky Captain” wouldn’t have put asses in seats but it might’ve gotten me to a press screening.

    Wonder if there’s a 3 hour extended version with lots of subplots about the other pilots.

  23. Also the Best Buy-in to any movie ever is Face/Off. We have a technology that can swap your faces so convincing his own brother will be fooled. I’m in!

  24. Stacy Livitsanis

    June 10th, 2019 at 8:20 am

    I love it when this happens: I watch a film, don’t think a whole lot of it, grumble about it being crap, then move on. A few months, sometimes years, go by, and something compels me to watch that previously dismissed film again, and voila, it’s a lot better than I thought it was the first time. That happened this week with Mortal Engines. Contrary to my negative comment above, seeing this a second time elevated it a lot. Still don’t think the characters work very well, but the aesthetic wonders on display proved increasingly compelling. So much so that I bought the bloody thing on blu-ray. You were right, Vern. It did catch on eventually.

  25. I watched this last night with my brother on your recommendation. The things about it that aren’t great are very apparent and are easy targets. It’s my favourite of the last decade’s wave of YA adaptations. The universe is incredibly imaginative, the characters are emotionally realized, and it feels like an action steampunk hybrid of a China Mieville novel and a Ghibli film. Like, how wack and boring is the critical establishment to dogpile this?

  26. I forgot that I watched this a few months ago 100% because of this review, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, considering how milquetoast the whole thing seemed. My disdain from upthread now seems unwarranted. It’s a lot better overall than ALITA, in any case. Funny, though, how this whole mammoth project seems to have come about simply because young Peter Jackson once had a dream in which his school became mobile and bulldozed through his hometown, so he bought the rights to the books as an excuse to realize an approximation of that vision onscreen. My man is like 60 years old and his whole career is still all about literalizing his childhood fantasies. I truly don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.

  27. Saw it yesterday and yeah, it’s just another one of those YA movies, but more entertaining and with much cooler ideas and concepts than most of them. It really didn’t deserve to bomb like that. Underperform a little. Break even. Make a little profit, maybe enough to justify a sequel, yes. But being one of the most disastrous box office bombs in history? Hell no! I can imagine that it will catch on more, when we are all further removed from the YA fad of this decade and it keeps playing more often on TV or popping up on certain streaming services.

    I would love to know whose idea it was to film the death of the slave trader like that. The flying wig and the headless body dropping in the background seem like pure old school Peter Jackson, but I can imagine as the guy who storyboarded BRAINDEAD, the director himself could’ve come up with that too.

  28. I actually just caught this again on HBO. I guess like everyone I have kind of mixed feelings- basically any time the thing slowed down and I had to try and care about someone’s feelings (especially the lead museum kid), it became a real slog, but any time people are running around on at big new crazy ships or city-tanks or weird airplanes, it’s enthralling. Plus they’ve got Hugo Weaving styled up like Cap in Infinity War and that’s just a good look on the man.

  29. Weaving also did a good job being a fake nice guy in the beginning. I actually thought he probably played someone who might work for “the man”, but isn’t a full blown asshole and probably get redeemed, but then I remembered that he is Hugo Weaving and of course is good guy ask didn’t last long.

  30. I just watched this on HBO after reading just enough of Vern’s review to see that it was positive, and I really enjoyed it as well. The crowds cheering as the huge machines ravage the land is a apt and sad. I wouldn’t have expected a movie to remind me of the Matrix, Nausicaa, Mad Max, Terminator, and even Star Wars. Not perfect but worth it for the scenes with the Lazarus machine.

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