How Mortal Engines became the new John Carter of Mars

Friday, April 3, 2020
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, mega money spinner for the studios a la Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, 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 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 LARGE 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 as a 'teenager' movie.

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 extremely talented Robbie Shehan as Tom - check out his turn in The Umbrella Academy on Netflix, the lad can truly act when given the right material. 

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! Something, something... built in fan base, featuring a hugely popular character.

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 recognized it 6 months prior to release 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.

A brief history of Municipal Darwinism by Deputy Head Historian Chudleigh Pomeroy

Wednesday, January 22, 2020
chudleigh pomery mortal engines

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MUNICIPAL DARWINISM By Deputy Head Historian Chudleigh Pomeroy

-

This was a wonderful early essay written by Philip Reeve which gives a bit of further insight into the world of Mortal Engines. It is written from the point of view of Chudleigh Pomery, a character from the first Mortal Engines novel. 

It's probably not considered canon but serves as a fair idea of how giant traction cities came to roam the globe!

Pomery was wonderfully played by veteran British actor Colin Salmon, shame he wasn't in the film much!

If you want to learn more about the stories that happened during the times the essay refers, check out Reeve's prequel series which starts with the novel Fever Crumb.

This work used to be on Reeve's own site but was found at The Way Back Machine. All rights, Mr P Reeve.




(Re-published by kind permission of the Guild of Historians.)

1: The World After The War


After the Ancients destroyed themselves in the Sixty Minute War, there were several thousand years when Nothing Much Happened.  These were the Black Centuries.  Mankind was reduced to a few thousand individuals; scattered bands of savages who hid in cellars and caverns to escape the plague-winds and the poisoned rain, and survived on the canned goods they managed to dig up from the ruins of their ancestors' great cities.  It was a savage age, when life was cheap, and most people would happily have sold their own children for a tin of rice pudding.

Even when the ash-clouds thinned and the sun returned, bringing new growth to the scorched earth, humanity was still beset by famines, pestilence and other types of unpleasantness.  Vast upheavals and rearrangements of the Earth's surface were underway.  Whether these were due to the lingering effects of the mighty weapons which the Ancients had used in their war, or were merely a natural process, we cannot know.  

What is certain is that mighty new mountain ranges arose (the Shan Guo uplands, the Deccan Volcano Maze and the Tannhauser Mountains being the prime examples).  At around this time, among other great changes, some violent storm or convulsion in the planet's crust caused the western edges of the island called 'Britain' or 'Uk' to sink beneath the Atlantic, while the North Sea drained away entirely, leaving Britain attached by a land-bridge to the rest of Europe.  (This was one day to have great consequences for a miserable, ruinous city called London, which clung on, barely inhabited, to a place beside the muddy river Thames.)

http://amzn.to/2C5A4eh

2:  New Shoots From The Ashes


Life in the Black Centuries was difficult, disagreeable and generally pretty short, and it would be many thousands of years before anyone had the time or inclination to set about building a new civilization.  In most parts of the world, all knowledge of the past had been swept away, and human beings lived little better than animals.  Indeed, some were not truly human at all, for lingering poisons from the war had caused mutant off-shoots of humanity to arise; chief among them the warlike Scriven and the sinister Nightwights.  (Not only that, but a race of semi-intelligent gulls haunted the Atlantic coastlines, and in the north herds of mammoth-like 'hairyphants' once more roamed the tundra!)

In Africa, however, where the plague-bombs and orbit-to-earth atomics had not fallen so thickly, a certain amount of learning had been preserved, and it was here that the first flowers of civilisation began to bloom afresh.  The so-called 'Spring Cultures' of Zagwa, Ogbomosho and the Tibesti Caliphate eventually grew into great trading cultures whose merchants and missionaries helped to restore civilisation to the rest of the world.  As millennium followed millennium new societies arose in Europe and South America, as well as in the remnants of India and China and among the Thousand Islands of the Pacific.  Some fell by the wayside, and we know little of them now beyond their names - the Raffia Hat civilisation, the Ash Boundary Culture, the Slate Bowl People.  Others, like the great culture of Shan Guo and the Mountain Kingdoms, have endured into modern times.


guild of engineers mortal engines


3: Of Nomad Empires and the Dawn Of Traction


In none of these new societies did anyone attempt to match the technological achievements of the Ancients.  Most, indeed, prohibited science and the building of complex machines, which they blamed for the disaster of the Sixty Minute War.  Some, such as the Zagwans, persecuted anyone who tried to preserve scientific knowledge, and destroyed whatever vestiges of the Ancient World they could find.  We can only guess at the loss to historians which such vandalism has caused!

In the northern part of Europe, however, certain remnants of the old world were revered, as we can see in those so-called machine-shrines where, in the depths of the Black Centuries, people prayed and made sacrifices to the battered computer-brains, toasters and automatic drinks dispensers they had found among the rubble of Ancient settlements.  Slowly, cultures arose which did not just worship the old machines, but tried to make them work again.  

The Blue Metal Culture, the Electric Empire with their earthenware batteries and strange electro-magnetic helixes, and the mysterious Pyramid Builders of the High Arctic were among them, but all were eventually swept away by natural disasters (the frequent Ice Ages of the period 10,000 to 3,000 BT), or by the rise of the Nomad Empires, rowdy hordes of barbarians who used whatever technologies they could find or steal in their endless wars with one another.  

They built armies of 'Stalkers' or 'Resurrected Men', and their mobile battle-platforms and 'traction fortresses' have been seen as the fore-runners of the Traction Cities we live upon today. One of these Nomad Empires was the Scriven, a mutant race from the high north, famous for their speckled skin and spectacular cruelty.  As their numbers dwindled and the climate grew cooler they were gradually driven south and east out of their old strongholds in Siberia and found their way at last to London, a squalid trading-post in eastern UK.  

They conquered it easily, and ruled it for almost two hundred years.  They were eccentric and tyrannical, yet under their rule London began to thrive again.  Merchants and scholars were drawn to the city by the relics from the Ancient world which scavengers dug up in great quantities from the soil around it, and vast advances in knowledge and technological prowess were made.  

The Scriven even set up the Order of Engineers, a fore-runner of our present-day Guild of Engineers, to study and re-use the things they found.  But the Scriven line was growing weak, and eventually, they were overthrown in their turn during a bloody rebellion led by the self-styled 'Skinners Guilds'.  There then followed a brief period of independence for the city, before new nomad conquerors swept in from the north.  These new arrivals called themselves the Movement, and their arrival marks the beginning of a new age; the Traction Era.  For they were led by the genius who would transform our city, the immortal First Helmsman Nikolas Quirke.

When the notion of Traction Cities first came to him, none now can say.  Some legends that as a young man travelling aboard his nomad Traction Fortress he was visited by a dream in which he saw an entire city moving across the face of the earth.  Others claim that the idea had first been conceived by the last of London's Scriven rulers, Auric Godshawk, and that Quirke merely inherited it, but few people nowadays believe that.  Whatever the origin of the plan, Londoners soon came to see its wisdom - especially when it was pointed out to them that a mobile London need not just flee its enemies; it could conquer them, and use their raw materials to make itself larger, stronger and faster-moving!

Over the following few years the city was torn down and rebuilt in the form of a gigantic vehicle, based on the linked and extended chassis of the Movement's Traction Fortresses.  These were dangerous times, for while all Quirke's energy and resources were employed in the rebuilding of the city his nomad rivals in the north hatched plots and alliances to overthrow him and take the city's riches for their own.  The most serious of these crises was the Northern War, in which many rival bands of nomads joined together and drove south to attack London with Stalkers, armoured mammoths and their own traction fortresses.  But Quirke's genius defeated and obliterated them, and London moved north to devour their former strongholds.

Today's Londoners would scarcely recognise the city on which their ancestors first set forth.  Far smaller than modern London, it rolled on wheels instead of tracks, it had no jaws yet, and its three tiers were protected with armour and ringed with cannon and catapults.  It looked more like a giant-sized version of the nomads traction fortresses than a city.  But in the hundred years that followed it was to eat most of the richer settlements in UK, and the raw materials it took from them were used to expand the base-plate, construct the first tracks and add a further four tiers were added to the city, bringing the total to the seven on which Londoners live today.  

Also at this time we see the beginnings of the Guild system, with the groups responsible for each aspect of London's movements clubbing together to protect their own interests and educate their children in their own fields of expertise.  

All the Guilds met together in council to decide on the city's future course and likely meals.  

The Navigators who were responsible for steering it, and the Merchants who helped fund it quickly came to dominate the council.  

Historians, while lacking political power, were greatly respected, for they had already begun to create the London Museum, one of the greatest centres of learning about the past since the fall of the Ancient world, and the means by which many Old-Tech devices have been rediscovered, and restored to every day use.

(It is interesting to note that London's engineers had very little power at that time.  Despite the fact that it was their skills which kept London moving, they were divided into small groups; the Designers, Axle-Strengtheners, Wheelwrights, Cog-Cutters, Power-Teams, Duct-Managers etc, etc. 

It would still be several more centuries before they achieved the dominion over London affairs which they presently enjoy.

traction cities concpet art
 

4: The 'Traction Boom'


As London increased its size and speed, and started to look hungrily at larger settlements on the far side of the old North Sea, other cities began to copy its lead, either in order to escape London's jaws, or in the hope of emulating its success.

  At first Londoners were indignant at what they saw as this poaching of their great idea.  But Quirke-ite thinkers it thus.  The Great Quirke, they said, has brought about a new phase of history.  From this time on all civilised people will wish to live aboard towns which move.  Those that are strong and swift will eat up those which are slow and weak.  And in this way the affairs of men will come into harmony with the natural world, where the fittest survive.  The theories of the Ancient philosopher Chas Darwin had recently been re-discovered in the library of one of the towns London had eaten, and the new system was quickly labelled Municipal Darwinism.

  There then followed the period known to vulgar people as the 'Traction Boom', during which cities and settlements of every size were compelled to 'go mobile', or to face being eaten up by others which had.  Some added tracks like London's, other experimented with inflatable wheels, systems of rails, or even, in the case of the short-lived Pogo-city of Borsanski Novi, some large springs.  Others, meanwhile, rebuilt themselves as rafts and took to the seas.  Some, like Airhaven and Kipperhawk, became airborne, taking advantage of developments in aviation.  Even the mountains can now be gnawed asunder by specialised mining towns in search of ore.  Even the icy polar wastes are traversed by cities, and the floors of the oceans have become the hunting grounds of submarine towns like Pacifica.  

Can it be long before Airhaven is joined in the sky by hunting cities, perhaps ones capable of ascending to the very fringes of space?  

The Ancients, as anyone who has looked up at the night sky will know, built homes and observatories in orbit.  It is not inconceivable that cities may one day evolve to hunt there, too.  Like life, our cities adapt to exploit every environment.

As Municipal Darwinism spread, the static cultures soon began to wither away.  Today they survive only in mountainous regions, such as Shan Guo, where the warrior-monk Batmunkh founded his Anti-Traction League.  In Africa, the degraded remnants of the Spring Cultures still protect their heartlands against mobile towns, but even with the League's help, their territories grow smaller every year.  

Despite such League atrocities as the sinking of Marseilles, most people believe firmly that moving cities are the future, and that Municipal Darwinism will triumph.  Indeed, most city people nowadays imagine that it is barbarous and even unhealthy to set foot upon the bare earth.  In years to come, the only thing left of the old way of life will be a few precious relics, preserved in places like our London Museum.



↠ The first line of Mortal Engines was inspired by the novel '1984'

Wednesday, January 1, 2020
pencil sketch of London City in Mortal Engines

I had an idea on the possible inspiration the first line of the Mortal Engines novel and asked the author Philio Reeve about it and eventually got a surprising answer!

Update Two:

Philip Reeve followed up again to my question with an awesome thought:

"I guess it's really based (though not consciously) on the opening line of 1984 (It was a..cold day in April & the clocks were striking 13')."



I read 1984 in one sitting the first time I read it and I will never forget the last line where the character is happy for he 'loves Big Brother' but could I remember the first line? No, and it turns out to be amazingly clever.

Big thanks to Mr Reeve for being so forthcoming!

Update One:

I asked the author himself and with a single word he shot down my theory! I love how in the modern world, I can create a fan theory and then hours later, Mr Reeve kindly shoots it down!


Original piece:

Here's the first sentence of the novel Mortal Engines:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.


When I first read it, it was immediately captivated. I'd heard the novel was about giant mechanical cities and some kind of 'Mad Max style' adventure for kids but I had no idea of what the book was really about. This line was brilliant as it pulls the reader into exactly was is happening, to whom and gives a sense of time in that the North Sea has dried out.

What happened there? Philip Reeve has got me hooked with the first line. That hasn't happened I don't think since I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Great stuff.

But the line seemed immediately familiar to me, as if I'd read it before.

And then the other week at work, we did the daily quiz that comes with the newspaper. It's a team thing we do each day. It's great fun.

But to my point, one of the questions was, what is the famous opening line of  Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford?

I took a stab in the dark and said "it was a dark and stormy night" and I was right!

Kind of.

Curious I looked up the book and saw this was the whole famous opening sentence:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."


Purple prose indeed.

And then it struck me. And, as if you didn't already perhaps know yourself - I realized it's VERY similar to Reeve's line in Mortal Engines. Did Reeve borrow it for inspiration?

Let's break it down:

ME: "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring"
Paul Clifford: "It was a dark and stormy night"

Well, the first four letters are the same and the sentence is describing the weather. So it's fair to wonder if Reeve was inspired by this line which has become such a cliche that this writer can use it to correctly guess a quiz answer!

Philip Reeve does plenty of name dropping and puns and references in his books, so it's with no real surprise he's cleverly done this but if you're not convinced, re-read the words again. The subject of each sentence is the city of London!

Now, this is just a theory I have. I can't find any discussion about this idea on the internet anywhere, so it's just an idea.

It's a shame that this line probably won't be used in the actual movie. Unless there's a narrator who explains what's going on we will most likely only be treated to the visual version of London city chasing some hapless prey.

I personally can't wait to see how the city looks.

I think given it's gonna be up there on silver screen with Peter Jackson's name attached it's going to have to be HUGE, way bigger than it's usually depicted in fan art - the perspective will need to be established quite well.

Fun Fact: Edward Bulwer-Lytton also coined the phrase "the pen is mightier than the sword" which is funny because if any one had asked I would have said it was Shakespeare. Speaking of the Great Bard, it blew my mind when I learned  that Shakespeare used the words 'mortal engines' in Othello....

City of London drawing care of Callum Gillies

If you've seen the movie, you'll know how it borrowed so many beats from Star Wars. Here's 501 moments of Star Wars trivia!
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