How Mortal Engines became the new John Carter of Mars

Wednesday, December 19, 2018
why mortal engines bombed


Have you seen John Carter of Mars?

Did you see it at the theatre?

We didn't and frankly, we saw it only when it was on Netflix a while back.

And we loved it!

It was a fun movie, with a lot to like. It was great for me as I learned that the books it was based on by Edgar Rice Burrows were a huge influence on the first Star Wars.

Expectations were high yet it underperformed to those expectations. Ultimately Disney had to do a 200 million dollar write down, making it a financial disaster for them.

So that's the legacy of what is really quite an enjoyable film.

Now Player Two has entered the game.

Peter Jackson, money spinner for the studios, got his hands on the rights to Phil Reeve's Mortal Engines novel a decade ago and has quietly bided his time to get it made following the saga he went through making The Hobbit trilogy.

So, now we have the Peter Jackson produced, Christian Rivers directed film made by the same team that made King Kong, Lord of the Rings, the Lovely Bones and The Hobbit plus twenty years of experience doing visual effects for many Hollywood films.

Plenty of Oscar winners amongst them.

What could go wrong?

Well, Mortal Engines has tanked just like John Carter did.

So much so, given that it was a high profile effort like Disney that it will become just as infamous.

How did this occur?

There are several things that can go into this answer, most of it subjective.

The first is that starting a new franchise like this is a gamble. With great risk can come great reward and Universal Studios backed Peter Jackson to deliver them buckets of cash.

The risk in this case is there was not an already established and well baked in fan base.

Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit had been in popular culture for 50 odd years.

Transformers has been around since the early 80s.

So they will get bums on seats, pretty much no matter what.

You get the idea.

Mortal Engines?

It was a well-received novel which had a smallish but not worldwide fan base. Sure, it did well enough for Reeve to do three excellent sequels but the average Joe and Janette had probably not heard of it.

So convincing people to see a film about a book where a giant city roams a scorched Earth looking to eat other cities is a big task.

So let's hand over to the Marketing department.

One of the reasons the film failed was arguably it was marketed quite poorly. And if that's the case, the blame falls on Universal and not Peter Jackson.

While we praised it publically, the first Mortal Engines trailer was utter garbage. Other than showing how huge and daunting a prospect London is, it just * felt * bad. Something was off on it. There was a lot of exposition and it felt like it was Hunger Games, Twilight or a Maze Runner Clone.

Movies of which time and the audience have moved on from .

So, many people dismissed it off the bat.

At the time we felt there was too much focus on Hester and not enough on what we KNEW would be the drawcard, that of Stephan Lang's Shrike. On seeing that character's absence we knew they were holding Shrike back which we figured was a mistake based on what we were seeing.

When the second trailer came, Shrike was there, looking pretty menacing as a zombie-like Terminator.

However, the impact was lost.

Shrike should have been played up big time. The marketing could have been a play on the HUNT FOR HESTER by SHRIKE not some damn generic love story we'd seen before.

If PJ and company had not played it safe with Hester's scar, they made have had another way in. Would people have been curious to see a movie about a hideously scarred character?

hester scar comparison
What could have been and what was...
Maybe?

Either way, the generic Hester (played by a talented but basically no-name actress) was not enough to pull in viewers.

Nor was the talented Robbie Shehan as Tom.

Hugo Weaving is a talented actor and has appeared in many a popular film but is he actually a box office draw as a stand-alone actor?

I don't believe so.

Don't get me wrong, he's fantastic and did a great job as Thaddeus Valentine but people don't line up to see Hugo Waving films. They line up to see films he's in...

So basically I'm saying there was a lack of star power present in the marketing to draw the casual moviegoer into seeing the film, especially when they'd been presented a fairly uninspiring first trailer.

Arguably the second also gave away the film's plot... and it also featured some garbage about joining a 'rebellion'.

Hmmm, that sounds familiar...

Was this a Star Wars movie?

Actually, it turned out to be and it seems a lot of people had a problem with this...

Now let's just state at this point we loved the Mortal Engines film. We knew what it was going in so expectations were set.

Casual filmgoers were hooked on the promise of a "Peter Jackson" movie which in many minds probably meant they were supposed to see something as good as District 9 or Return of the King.

Sorry folks, you got ... Mortal Engines with some Star Wars plots thrown in.

And this for some reason upset a lot of people. It was criticized for borrowing ideas from a movie that famously borrowed ideas from many other movies.

Go figure, the film crowd is a fickle thing.

So of the movie? Critics hated it.

They savaged it.

But what of the people who saw the movie as movie goers? 

This is where the film suffers. It's a kind of love it or hate it film. This is based on my following of assessments of the film by people on Twitter for the last two weeks.

Interestingly, a lot of comment was of people who went in cold, with no expectations was they really enjoyed it.

That said, some people simply thought it was a turd.

And that's OK.

This does, however, add up to the movie having a lower positive word of mouth than other critically panned movies have had. Tom Hardy's Venom was trashed by critics yet it did wonders at the box office - fans loved it, so it had good word of mouth - an established fan base sure helped too.

So poor word of mouth will have harmed the movie's chances.

We sure tried our best.


The timing of the film's release was curious 


The release of Mortal Engines in early December seems smart for a Tent Pole Peter Jackson production.

Except it went up against what is probably one of the strongest December release schedules in many a year.

Aquaman, with a built in fan base featuring a hugely popular actor.

Bumblebee, built in fan base featuring a hugely popular actor.

Mary Poppins Returns, with a built in fan base featuring a hugely popular actress.

And SPIDER MAN!

So four films which many people will prefer to see over a film they have never really heard much about.

The studio will have known this, and recognised this 6 months ago yet they did nothing. This means they were accepting that the film would fail well before the final cut was done.

Think about that. 

All this adds up to a distinct box office failure which is a shame because, like John Carter, Mortal Engines is a fun film, that many people would likely have enjoyed if they had given it a shot.

Will there be a sequel? Given this film's failure to make bank, we can be fairly confident that the idea is as dead as London's engines.

Review of Mortal Engines

Thursday, December 6, 2018
shrike mortal engines movie review

Review of Mortal Engines 


This review of the Mortal Engines film is long, over opinionated and full of unnessary concern about how The Last Jedi played out.

Deal with it.

Oh, and spoilers.

Making movies is a risky game of kind. For the studios, it's a numbers game. The successful movies fund and offset the duds. Sometimes you throw some celluloid at a wall to see what sticks.

But no movie is going to get a green light if it's a gonna be a dud on delivery.

So at the face of it, Mortal Engines being a love story set against the background of a post-apocalyptic Earth where some of the remaining humans live on giant traction cities that eat other for precious resources in some kind of zero-sum game called Municipal Darwinism perhaps does seems like it has dud potential (in the eyes of a risk adverse studio exec anyway).

Just throw that celluloid!

Anyways, Peter Jackson steps up to the plate along with his offsiders, Fran Walsh and Pippa Boyens so the royal they let him throw some celluloid.

I think this is a phrase I just made up. I'm copyrighting it just in case.

So anyways a trio from New Zealand that has more Oscars between them than most major Hollywood production teams stepped up.

And so, with a bit of American cash and some Kiwi splash, yet another Kiwi Oscar winner, Christian Rivers, was unleashed to direct the adaption of Reeve's YA novel.

And when the first trailer was released this author truly feared a dud was on the cards. We didn't say this publically (yeah, we know but wanted to support this film) but it looked like a cool idea with a wrong color palette that got zapped by a taser on acid.

Or something.

Details slowly came out which suggested promise and finally, we saw Shrike we were feeling a lot better about things.

Was a story about giant cities eating each other with Sir Peter Jackson's name splashed over it going to get a leg over the other hordes of films released this month (Mary Poppins, Aquaman, Bumblebee) or would it be a one and done?

For this reviewer, one who is closely attached to the books, the associated lore Reeve has built up through short stories and prequels and the fans, I can't quite bring myself rate it as a "That will do pig, that will do" but I can sneak in a "The battle of Helm's Deep is over; the battle for Middle Earth is about to begin."....

By that I mean, where's my damn sequel already?

I look at this film like I look at Transformers movie where giant robots kick each other in the head or giant Yeagar rise up out of the sea to kill everyone a la Pacific Rim. You accept it, buckle in for the ride and enjoy it for what it is.

Which is:

Some. 

Big. 

Dumb. 

Fun!

If you look at Mortal Engines as a concept any other way, you're probably going to end up feeling like the hordes of fan boys and girls who hated The Last Jedi.

Because this film is not about a box of err... Roses.

What are you looking at Dear Reader?

So after all these words, what of the damn movie?


It's probably the most spectacular train wreck of a movie that I've ever seen. And I saw the Transformers sequel twice.

THIS MEANS I LOVE IT!

That said, I'm pretty sure the haters are gonna hate, hate, hate, but the players...

The players will turn this major motion picture by a Hollywood studio into a cult film.

I'm certain there will be legions of book readers out there who have turned each page with fear and trepidation as to what would befall Tom and Hester next, who will want to see what it looks like when London calls and when they do, their mortal hearts will be happy.

So what of the movie then?

The Love Story


The story of Mortal Engines is often pitched as a Young Adult love story (of an inverse kind) but this movie has aged the characters into their mid-twenties so the love story that evolves is more natural in a sense but it certainly feels like Tom Natsworthy and Hera Hilamr didn't stay up all night together drinking Steinlager and working on their characters before they began rolling film.

Or pressing play on the record button or however they do it these days.

Both are clearly excellent actors but the relationship feels stilted (even despite the plot point of it)  - that's presumably what happens when you change the character dynamic of Hester by not making her the ugliest girl on any traction city... They sure took the feral out of that girl.

But by the ending of the movie, it's a believable enough relationship and leaves that nonsense with Rose saving Finn at the end of The Last Jedi in the sands of Crait...

The Heroes


You know how in Stranger Things, the guy that sings Sledgehammer sung Heroes by David Bowie?

That should be Anna Fang's theme song. Despite some hokey one-liners, the casting of Jihae is a triumph of the film.

In the novel, Fang was inspired by Han Solo from Star Wars and in this film, she treads those boards as a badass so well, she may as well star in the next couple of prequels...

Time will tell on that.

There's many a supporting player in ME that can be classed as a hero too.

Chudleigh Pomery (superbly played by Colin Salmon)

Yasmina

Captain Khora


Nihls, oh Nihls.

All just great characters and well played by the actors.

They all have a chance to shine and do so very well - indeed Fang's Anti-traction league team are possibly one of the most underrated crews to have flown in an airship in recent times.

Anna Fang, naturally gets a special mention in dispatches all of her own


In the novel, Anna Fang is a mysterious bad ass.

Sensing a fine character in the making, Peter Jackson kept her as less mysterious but upped the ante in the bass add department.

The character is great fun.

It was wonderful to see the books' Jenny Hanniver come to life. Piloted by Fang, the airship is a central part of all four original novels so it was great to see it in action, even if it's now powered to be as fast and deadly as an F14 Tomcat.

Jiahe's delivery of a few lines is pretty loose (which heads into Star Wars' I hate sand territory) but if you can get past that, you'll see Anna Fang is one of the hearts of the movie that pumps along quite nicely, especially with a triple powered shotgun in hand...

magnus chrome and valentine mortal engines


The Villains


Mrrrrr Anderrrrsooon.

That was my proper introduction to Hugo Weaving as the Agent in The Matrix.

A Lord of the Rings alumni, Peter Jackson and team clearly love working with the man and why wouldn't you want to when he can turn on a dime as Elrond or Agent Smith and become this horrible, horrible man.

Have you seen The Lovely Bones where Transformers alumni Stanley Tucci plays a horrible child killer? Every scene with Tucch was in felt like I was being violated by the mere force of his acting.

Weaving does the same thing here.

He's a fucking psycho yet he doesn't even know it. He thinks that he is the good guy in all of this.

Sure, he knows he's cut a few corners here and there or the odd young girl's faces or murdered his lover to get where he's going but he's done it all for London.

So it's OK then, you see?

Magnus Chrome, Mayor London. 

I expected good things but this was a kind of a by the numbers caricature of the character in a way.

Patrick Malahides's Chrome didn't feel like he was as dangerous as he did in the novel and the plot point change for this character doesn't help, but makes for a good movie.



mortal engines shrike green eyes

Shrike

Did you know a shrike is a bird that impales captured insects on cactus thorns? It's very helpful if you know this going into the film...

When you ask a man with the gravitas of Stephan Lang to play Shrike, you hope that this is a casting that will flow on perfectly into the sequel films...

And it is.

Shrike is perfectly played by Lang.

Judging from interviews with him prior to the film's release, he really got into the lore of the character (we suspect he read ALL the novels) and put his achting heart into a character that in many ways literally and figuratively has no heart (or does he?!)

Lang's green-eyed version of The Terminator is a chilling representation of what could be humanity's future: an embryonic cyborg where feelings might matter, but killing is a preference. Make no mistake though, this character is not a retread of a classic 1980's robot killer, it's a whole new take on love, which the film's ending sequences slowly reveal in a most poignant manner. It's like Peter Jackson has read the books or something...

I loved the look and feel of the character and the action sequences that featured Shrike are just bang on the money, and reason enough to see the film alone.

What about the look and feel of the movie?


Being a Peter Jackson produced film where all the elements of his empire in Miramar, Wellington, NZ have been brought to bear, you'd expect this film to be a CGI gore fest.

And yes it is just that, but frankly, that's probably why PJ wanted to do this movie as there has never been ANYTHING like this on screen before (Can all those people talking about Howl's Moving Castle now please quietly shuffle along?).

This movie's effects are arguably the best that Weta Digital have ever produced. I'm not an expert at all but I suspect they are certainly some of the most complicated, apes aside.

Let's talk London.

When London is framed as a hulking metal mass, the angles are so menacing. When starring up at the screen in the opening chase, I felt like I was about to get squashed by the damn thing.

How do you show and project a city that's 2.5 kilometers long chasing a smaller traction city? This is not Darth Vader's Executor ship in Empire that just sittings unmoving in space, this city needs contrast around it as otherwise how will you believe what you are seeing?

And: Holy Cow Batman >> when that city rolled by as I sat in my seat, I truly felt I was about to be monstered by 100000 tonnes of cold British Steel.

So, it looks great.

Shrike as a CGI motion capture is some fine work and gosh, the ending where the Medusa weapon comes alive is just magical.

Airhaven was a visual spectacle and seems like a fun place to hang out, despite it being a little too easy for robot assassins to turn up and try and kill everybody.

The soundtrack


The music of Mortal Engines is composed by Tom Holkenborg and it is simply superb. One of the things that has infuriated me about the development of Mortal Engines is the comparisons people make to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mortal Engines is not Mad Max, it's just Mad, Max.

But they do now share a composer.

Holkenborg is clearly one talented composer. The film soars with his music as it needs and there's some crucial, heart breaking moments in the film where it feels like his music is the thing that is turning the dagger in one's heart.

So what's bad about it?


If we're to get critical for a moment, and remember, we are accepting this movie as just some big dumb fun!, the acting is pretty clunky in parts - have a think to some of the early Star Wars films and you're on the mark. Indeed, the film has some key plot points from Star Wars.

Some of Anna Fang's revelatory speech to Hester is a bit OTT

There's also several plot points that have been changed which have some drastic effects on the story - so much so that in the film premiere the author Philip Reeve had to pause to figure out what was happening.

This is basically to say, Mortal Engines the movie has a very different ending than the book, but it works, even if it sneaks a moment which allows Tom Natsworthy to pull a Lando Calrissian move out of the Return of the Jedi playbook cross with a bit of The Guns of Navarone.

Katherine Valentine - well played as a character but went simplynowheree in terms of plot, like you could cut the character (and Bevis) and have no consequnce to the ending of the movie, which is completely different to the ending of the novel. 

If you've followed this site, you'll know we lamented that Hester's scar was toned down from 11 to 4. We got over it and enjoyed Hera Hilmar's version of Hester for what it is. FUN. Not FERAL. FUN.

The verdict?

Mortal Engines is a fun ride, a visual treat to enjoy while you eat overpriced popcorn.

We rate it a strong 7.5 out of 10.

It features a lot of talent on screen and behind it. While it differs from the book in many ways, this feels like the best version of the world of Mortal Engines that we ever could expect to see on the silver screen. 

Christian Rivers has done a fine job on his first gig as director and should be commended for making a decent BIG DUMB FUN! film. 

Sadly it appears the movie is a box office flop, on the level of John Carter of Mars.
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