There is a joke in the Peter Jackson-produced MORTAL ENGINES that caught me completely off-guard. And judging from the general breathlessness of the theater, the joke caught a lot of people off-guard—my problem with said joke is not that it isn’t funny (though it isn’t) or that it’s not, quite literally, from a different universe than that in which the film operates (though it is)—my problem with the joke is that it’s eerily emblematic of Hollywood’s increasing desperation: a desperation so strong the filmmakers are willing to sacrifice the integrity of their film for an intertextual sight gag. You’ll find that much of MORTAL ENGINES lacks even a morsel of integrity, with the filmmakers more than willing to offer torpid monologues and bafflingly misguided attempts at characterization. In general, the film is wont to rehash the same old Young Adult morass we’ve seen for years now, with nary an original thought, word, or visual in sight.
This is the first feature from Christian Rivers, who secured a job as Peter Jackson’s storyboard artist through a fan letter sent when he was 15. Rivers worked as an artist for The Lord of the Rings, and acted as assistant director for Jackson on a number of shoots, one day offered to direct the generously-budgeted MORTAL ENGINES. It’s clear from reading interviews with the man that he had little-to-no idea of what he was doing while helming the feature—the script was revised while shooting, which shows, and some dramatic scenes were handled by a Second Unit—many so-called “dramatic” scenes in the picture are executed with the cold efficiency of a dark web-contracted hitman, easing into impotent flashbacks with such studied precision it echoes the roboticism of much of the film’s action.
Pictured: Peter Jackson eyeing 10s of millions of dollars being flushed down the drain
If you’re a fan of proper nouns, and also consider yourself a fan of the phrases “predator cities,” “prepare to ingest,” and “municipal Darwinism,” you’ll most likely be a fan of MORTAL ENGINES. Or maybe not—this mishmash of the Merriam-Webster Synonyms page and the summer reading list for Biology 101 is the closest the film comes to being a good time, though of course it’s played with a straight face and a clenched jaw, not once acknowledging the utter balderdash that occupies the screen. This is a Steampunk fetishist’s idea of a film, in which cities are mobile and must consume other cities in order to maintain homeostasis (or something, the film is very vague on the particulars of the titular mortal engines).
Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan as the protagonists try their best to combat the cesspool of boggy exposition and fatigued world-building, and Hugo Weaving is here, doing his best Hugo Weaving impression, but the picture is far too derivative of more accomplished outings, like the aforementioned Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and even Disney’s TREASURE ISLAND, to make much of an impact. A subplot with Strike—a Resurrected Man (think metal-clad zombie meets the visual effect for Avada Kedavra) hunting Hilmar’s character for what is literally referred to as “a broken promise”—reeks of a lack of knowledge of basic film structure and is indicative of the film’s misguided desire to tell a 150-minute story in 128 minutes.
Guys, are you listening? Okay… moving cities… eating each other. Huh? Am I right or what? Municipal Darwinism, anybody?!!
No, I haven’t read the books, and, after the opening shots of the film, I have neither the desire nor the inclination to explore this universe any more than that to which I’ve already been subjected. The CG work in the film is downright embarrassing for its $100 million budget, with many an image looking as if it were first run through a PS4 rendering job before being inserted into the final film. It’s not the worst film of the year, but it’s up there, with director Rivers trafficking in unapologetic riffs on better material, shoddy zooms clearly done in post, and actual human trafficking (yes, there is a scene in which humans are auctioned off to the highest bidder!) It’s a terrible picture, joyless and soul-sucking, and I’m not recommending you see it, though perhaps it is worth the price of admission to get to witness, first-hand, on a 50-foot screen, that joke I mentioned—a joke so startling, so unsettlingly stupid, the rest of the film simply feels like the worst kind of cinematic afterbirth.