Every year there is a huge financial flop for movie studios. Given that a new blockbuster debuts every other weekend, there’s bound to be some misses. The biggest flop of 2018 came late in the year with Mortal Engines from Universal and producer Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame.
Mortal Engines is based on a book of the same name. In this dystopian world the world has been decimated by quantum weapons (bombs more advanced than nuclear or hydrogen bombs), the result was that the earth’s crust and resources have been shocked into chaos (the continents are thus deformed). Cities have become mobile and on wheels in order to roam the world and gather resources. This results in big cities like London devouring smaller scavenging ones. The character we follow is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) a girl hell-bent of taking revenge on Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) a prominent figure in London society.
The film is surprisingly gripping, while the concept of cities on wheels is a bit ridiculous (and the film never shakes this off) the world-building is nevertheless intriguing. The blockbuster tone is infused in this film with a fun and wise-cracking aura that is convincing enough. The film might have flopped because of the lack of star power (Hugo Weaving is the only prominent Hollywood figure), but the unknown young actors in the lead roles are adept enough.
However, the film never culminates the complex characters it has set up, we’re left with a shallow exploration of them. In fact, besides Hester and the male lead Tom (Robert Sheehan) all the other supporting characters are largely one note: the angry pessimist, the tough marauder, the greedy villain, etc. There’s only one small supporting character made completely of CGI that touched audiences. In fact it would appear to have been ironic as this character, named Shrike (Stephen Lang) is meant to be an emotionless zombie-robot. However, the film gives enough backstory to this character to show that he was a human whose memories were wiped; yet as a robot he unconsciously collects broken children’s toys and attempts to fix them, echoing a past life in which he had a family. Throughout the film Shrike hunts Hester, out of a feeling of loneliness and loss; his arc brought actual tears to my eyes in a film that I had expected to be snorting at snobbishly.
The film tries to bring about certain political commentaries, but before they can land properly the filmmakers are quickly moving on. The story also has many moving parts, with so many characters on different journeys; Jackson was adept at balancing these elements in his Lord of the Rings movies, but in this film, director Christian Rivers fails to find a proper equilibrium. The result is a certain loss of pace and interest in certain character arcs.
Nevertheless, Mortal Engines didn’t deserve to be the flop that it was. It is a properly made blockbuster with the fun tone that an entertaining movie should have. The film doesn’t rise to the epic levels of Peter Jackson’s previous films, but it does its job at helping pass the time.