Universal had big plans for Mortal Engines. Given the film’s $100 million production budget, the ubiquity of producer Peter Jackson’s name on the marketing, and the holiday season release date, it’s clear that the studio intended for this to be a new blockbuster franchise in which many sequels would stem from. After all, the film is based on a series of books by Philip Reeve, giving Universal enough material for future sequels and prequels.
But as you know by now, Mortal Engines was a gigantic failure which was dusted at the box office by the likes of Aquaman and Mary Poppins Returns. The unfortunate part of that is this wasn’t all that unexpected. This film was never going to be the next Star Wars or even the next Fast & Furious. In an entertainment world where IP is king, I can’t fault Universal for making the attempt to start a new franchise. But it was always going to be an uphill battle to adapt the critically acclaimed, but perhaps not very well-known book series and turn it into a December staple.
A big obstacle for the film’s crossover appeal is it’s seemingly rich mythology. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world where large metropolitan cities have literally mobilized, and feast on the resources of smaller mobilized cities, the film has to catch the audience up quickly on a world that is very different from our own. But I don’t think the best methods were used to accomplish this, but more on that later. The film focuses primarily on London, as the city is the major mobilized city we follow. After London conquers the small town of Salzhaken, we’re introduced to the main protagonist and a citizen of Salzhaken – Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Shaw is seeking revenge on Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a figurehead of London, for murdering her mother and for nearly killing Hester herself. Valentine survives the assassination attempt, and upon learning that an apprentice, Robert Sheehan (Tom Natsworthy), has discovered the truth of Valentine’s past crimes, pushes Sheehan down a waste chute. This eventually leads to Sheehan meeting up with Shaw, abandoning his native city of London, and teaming up with the scarred heroine.
The issue with the premise is it falls flat due to poor editing and structure. Shaw makes an attempt on Valentine’s life early on in the film – but we don’t know anything about her motivation and her back story with Valentine until after this first encounter plays out. This leaves many of the early scenes in the first act without any tension because we don’t know who the hell these characters are and we don’t know their motivations. What’s worse is when we do discover key details, they are often relayed to supporting characters with tepid exposition.
The screenwriters (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens) had the herculean task of presenting such an immense back story in just a couple of hours. But instead of hiding secrets from the audience, it may have been best to present the back story of these characters at the beginning of the film so that when the action begins, we actually give a damn and understand the stakes. Seeing Hester’s injuries as a child first, before introducing the adult Hester and her facial scars would also be a clear signifier to the audience of who she is without any dialogue. But you can’t expect to drop a voiceover at the beginning of the film explaining the post-apocalyptic state of the world, then follow that up with character actions that are completely without context. Not that the revelation about the history between Valentine and Shaw is all that shocking to be worth the wait anyway – Weaving is clearly the villain of the piece from the outset.
As the action progresses, we learn that Shaw and Sheehan must prevent Valentine from building a super weapon that could obliterate both mobilized and static cities alike. Along the way, they meet allies such as Anna Fang (Jihae), an ace pilot and the character you might remember most from all the trailers other than Hester Shaw. You get the sense that Fang is intended to be the film’s Han Solo, the character that brings the film to life with wit and charm, but it never really comes together. The acting is just too sedated for any one character to bring energy to the film, but Fang probably comes the closest. Which gets to one of the major complaints many have already hurled at the film – the characters are too bland. This is certainly the case; while the main heroes are likable, they’re not necessarily the type of characters we want to spend adventures with. It doesn’t help that Hilmar and Natsworthy, while somewhat engaging as friends, have absolutely no romantic chemistry to speak of which severely hurts the key relationship of the film.
One relationship that does work is that between Shaw and her former guardian Shrike (Stephen Lang). By far the most complex aspect of the story, Shrike is a cyborg who looked after Shaw in the aftermath of her mother’s death. Their relationship matured to the point that Shaw even vowed she would become a cyborg herself – a promise she ultimately doesn’t keep. Valentine has reawakened Shrike in an attempt to hunt down Shaw, and this section of the film is not only the highlight but also where all the dramatic tension lies. It makes me wish the filmmakers had established all of the exposition early, including the back story on Shrike, in order to focus in on the character relationships. Instead, the narrative has to constantly pause because of something else that Shaw hasn’t explained to Sheehan (read: the audience) yet.
As a big admirer of flashy sci-fi stories with rich mythologies, it’s disappointing that Mortal Engines isn’t a better film. It has a rich source material, some thrilling action scenes, and at the very least you can say its overall vibe is a nice reprieve from capes, light sabers, and dinosaurs. But the film’s clunky screenplay and lack of memorable performances just get in the way of what should have been a fun ride from start to finish. R.I.P Mortal Engines, may a better blockbuster alternative take your place.