Mortal Engines is Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens writing an adaptation of the first of a book series turned into a massive sprawling special effects frenzy. Unlike Lord of the Rings, however, the thing this movie lacks is story and character.
Jackson is not at the helm here, instead duties are given to Christian Rivers, longtime collaborator of Jackson’s, and as it turns out, a solid director. Watching Mortal Engines shows exactly why he’d be great at a Dam Busters remake. Here, however, there are problems.
The thing is, Rivers is a super competent and visual director. It makes sense, given his previous storyboarding and visual effect experience. Where the issues really lie are in the story and the characters, which is definitely a biggie.
Mortal Engines creates a wonderfully batshit insane and goofy world you actually buy right into. There is a lot of care and attention and just sheer visual storytelling that makes you settle into a world where London is a city on wheels rolling around the Earth that remains after apocalyptic war. The film is immensely visual and imaginative as to how this world would work and how the people live.
It pains me watching this movie and for all its silliness and art direction and costume design and set design and special effects and basically every technical and visual basis where this film works...where it all falls down with the screenplay.
I do not fault it too much on the screenwriters, who are competent. We know this all too well. It’s not just the Academy Awards that sing the praises of their work, but the sheer love and appreciation. Hell, apparently the books this film is based on are also great. It all feels like the story is just lost in translation. Too familiar to too bland storylines that have graced our screens in recent years. Where dystopia and young adult prevail and with it even more mediocrity. Where the average looking and average personalities work well for lowest common denominator teen audiences to project onto but lacking any real substance.
It just never felt great with Mortal Engines. It manages to legitimise it’s bonkers premise, but the reason it loses and bores you is because you don’t feel anything for this ambitious world. None of the characters’ motivations feel worthy of your time. There’s generic revenge plots and generic evil schemes, but nothing resonant enough or argued enough to make it anything important. Our two main heroes and the villain are fleshed out just a bit, but every supporting character is just filler. Whether it’s the Trinity knock-off or her motley crew of less than one dimensional expendables or the investigating allies at home and their pointless side-stories, Mortal Engines has a severe character problem. Once again, it’s strange, because these writers have managed to write films where every single character is important and interesting in their own way. Everyone can be anyone’s favourite character.
It’s tough being held up to Lord of the Rings, but with this amount of talent behind the film, it’s so surprising and shocking just how much Mortal Engines doesn’t work. It’s confounding how these writers haven’t been able to strike again, forgetting every lesson in storytelling in the adaptation of this book.
Mortal Engines is full of potential, but half of it is squandered. We may never see a sequel, which is a legitimate shame. This world is brilliant, but clearly the world is not.
Then again, when you read the synopses of the next few books, you kinda have to feel thankful that this is where these moving cities are cinematically gonna grind to a halt.