Taking on properties based on lesser-known fantasy novels doesn’t always make for a good thing, especially when there’s a chance not everybody has read the source material. This fact goes in line well with Mortal Engines, which is based on Philip Reeve’s 2001 young adult book that I never heard of until Peter Jackson got involved as a writer and producer. The premise itself sounded like it was going to be a hybrid of Mad Max: Fury Road, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Waterworld all rolled into one. You can see this was reaching for the major potential to make it work but never gets to greatness.
What’s the Story: Hundreds of years after a cataclysmic event destroyed civilization, mysterious young Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) emerges as the only one who can stop the city of London — now a giant predator on wheels — from devouring everything in its path. Feral and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, and Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.
Do you want to know why I put off watching Mortal Engines this long? Because it didn’t look that interesting to look at, even if it’s part of the sci-fi genre. The first time I ever saw the trailer was when I caught the teaser before Star Wars: The Last Jedi and my instant thought was, “Meh.” Universal tried to get people to like this that they released two more trailers after, trying to make it look convincing enough to make thrilling. This marks the last movie of 2018 I haven’t watched yet. Knowing that Jackson was involved, it’s enough to get a little excited, even if I have no clue of what will occur and knew he wasn’t directing it.
The steampunk action flick marks Christian Rivers’ directorial debut. He has worked with Jackson in the past as a storyboard artist or visual effects supervisor on nearly all of his films. Him taking on a huge project that had a budget of $150 million is a risk to take on, but when he has done nothing beforehand, there was nothing that appeared impressive.
That’s mainly because the screenplay Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens felt like the viewers already know this world by heart and falls into the familiarity. Even if this wasn’t an adaptation of sorts and it was an original idea, this wouldn’t make it any better whenever someone uses terms that can be heard in a fantasy world that makes little sense when you hear. Seeing the setting of a post-apocalyptic earth is fun when it has something cool surrounding it. Not in here. My mind tried to wonder if Jackson took over and made this an awesome experience if possible. Sadly, Mortal Engines will still wind up being very forgettable.
Here we have a fantasy where caring about any featured character is unlikely, as they were all dull like a cover of a great song. No connection to any human being for its two hours. We’re following Hilmar’s Hester and Sheehan’s Tom on this adventure the whole time, but couldn’t they been written better or with some personality? Hilmar isn’t an actress I’m familiar with, but I recognized Sheehan from The Umbrella Academy and the mediocre YA movie The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Both of them together didn’t have the best chemistry in the world to truly care if they beat this thing together.
Hugo Weaving is one of my favorite character actors and has played a fair share of villains before, but his performance as Thaddeus Valentine doesn’t hold a candle to when he was Agent Smith or even Megatron. This was not a good role for him to play when he came off as a predictable person you don’t care to know about, feeling bad for him not playing to his strengths. But then you have other people I felt were throwaway since I completely forgot about them quickly as the film continued, which includes Leila George as Weaving’s daughter, Ronan Raftery who joins George on a side plot that felt empty, and even Stephen Lang as a Frankenstein’s monster-like cyborg named Shrike.
Moments, where it wanted to pull on the emotional heartstrings and make a scene dramatic, wasn’t helping since it wasn’t earned. Any time when it needed to climb into the action sequences, they never invested me in going happening on screen because it’s never once exciting. Like the chase sequence that opens the movie sounded cool on paper, but the stakes weren’t there from the way I was seeing it. The only time where it was going somewhere was when it was heading in the third act, as the final battle was happening. Nothing was blowing my mind since I was already checked out and was thinking how come I wasn’t watching Lord of the Rings at that moment, but even the climax was a rip-off of Star Wars. Shame, just shame.
There were a few positive outlooks to come from the movie. For starters, the visual effects aren’t anything to get an Oscar-nomination from, but it was cool enough seeing this fictional world that, at least, tried to be creative. And Jihae as Anna Fang was probably the only enjoyable character that brought a little levity when this needed to be good for once. That being said, those couple redeemable qualities still just made this boring to watch in its entirety.
Knowing they based this on a book is usually a bad sign when the whole time this felt like it was pushing towards becoming some kind of franchise starter since there are sequels to the first book. That honestly bothers me when this doesn’t take the time to focus on taking what some people enjoyed and expand on that without making it feel like nothing.
If I saw this around the time it came out, would Mortal Engines end up on my worst list of 2018? It would’ve been close. Overall, Rivers made a very dull steampunk adventure with little to no way of actually enjoyable. This brings a world that’s fascinating to glance at, but there’s not a lot of substance to make you interesting in what’s coming next. No wonder this performed poorly at the domestic box office, marking it as the biggest bomb of the year.