It feels as something has been missing from big studio films in recent memory, at least when you ask general audiences. The kind of archaic, action-heavy and pathos-ridden blockbusters that usually draw many to the theatre, seem to have lost their appeal. In the exact moment where the cinema as an institution has gained a major rival in the form of streaming services, the films that usually gel so well on the big screen, with their opulent production design and their often CG-supported visual grandeur, seem have lost contact to their potential audiences, no matter how visually inventive or audacious they are. Some of these films get a push in the case of a positive critical reception or massive marketing campaigns, but in general, new franchises are hit hard at the box office. Recent examples are plenty and to be fair, many of these films are forgettable. But even films that truly stand out have to take major losses in their cinema runs.
One example is Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014), an action film with a star-studded cast, a talented crew and stellar reviews. It concisely mixed genre conventions into big entertainment — but despite the quality on display and the accessibility in the film’s storytelling, the general public wasn’t interested in seeing it. And while they didn’t get away with a positive critic’s consensus, flopped films such as the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending (2015) and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) have gained a community of fans, who admire them for their courage to be original in their vision of spectacle and who prevent their names from being forgotten in the flash flood of the contemporary blockbuster landscape. It’s a slightly different story with Mortal Engines — but not all too different.
Mortal Engines (2018) – directed by Christian Rivers, all right reserved to © Universal Pictures
The base setup of the film is one that seems to be, in theory, a safe bet: produced and co-written by Peter Jackson, who used to be the biggest name of the industry in relation to the type of filmmaking in question, Mortal Engines somehow managed to completely bomb at the box office. It is actually quite a shame, because the film keeps its promise of – big – and manages to possess much more vigor and excitement than the average blockbuster film.
The film creates a dystopian society in which the cities of today drive through a deserted wasteland. On wheels. In this context, two young people get caught up in each other’s stories at first, and then finally a much bigger picture of international conflict that sets stakes as big as the continued existence of humankind, unfolds. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), scarred and uncompromising, and Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), clueless and British, are connected by a betrayal and set out on a journey together, through the wasteland by foot, through different vehicles of all shapes, whether ship, plane or city and through all kinds of hardships and adventures.
From the very first scene, the film’s visual scale is set up. Two cities on wheels lock sight on each other, and thus a race for life and death begins —the big is aiming to devour the small. It’s a refreshingly showy sequence, which never makes a secret of its heavy use of special effects, something that traverses the entire film and allows for moments of genuine beauty and wonder. The key is stylization —something that has been proven as the only right way to go when it comes to VFX use in a long-term context. Sound familiar? Director Christian Rivers, whose VFX work on the Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) films and King Kong (2005) rendered some of the most well-aging visual effects around, likely assured the successful implementation of latter in his directorial feature debut.
But his now-rearranged collaboration with Peter Jackson shows similarities to the latter’s work beyond the visual plane. Jackson’s sensibilities for pathos and engaging a broad audience have been, more or less, successfully translated into Mortal Engines. We follow several different characters and their roles in the bigger picture —one that is filled with obvious, but well-implemented allegories of environmental awareness, patriarchy, privilege, colonialism and humanity— and somehow manages to be none of the big mess that it could have been. The mythos of this world is legitimately intriguing and while some characters, especially the leads, are flat as a fart, there are as many that outweigh them with their charismatic presences. The wanted outlaw Anna Fang (Jihae) and a heartless zombie-esque character named Shrike (Stephen Lang) are especially memorable. Fang oozes an untouchable coolness in both presence and style at first, but small narrative beats enrich her as the time passes, layering her presence with something warm and vulnerable. Shrike’s character arc is heavily bound to Hester and their next-level toxic relationship gets much more under one’s skin given the cruel circumstances it grows to be.
As soon as all characters are introduced and the film has given us an understanding of its world, the third act merges everything before into a gripping climax, whose ante rises by the minute. The stakes built by the narrative hold up, and while the misused score by Junkie XL and some poor directing choices rob the final hour of some of its momentum, there is no denial that many of the narrative threads work incredibly well. When the pathos finally comes through, Christian Rivers’ vision succeeds in what it sets out to do. It makes it all the more tragic that it lost so badly at the box office. Mortal Engines possesses everything that seems to have been missing from recent studio films and many things that general audiences want. But sadly it looks like the tired same old, same old sci-fi-fantasy shtick from the outside and will find its place in the —as we Germans call it— ‘Grabbelkorb’ of your favorite department store.