How Mortal Engines became the new John Carter of Mars

Monday, August 23, 2021
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 comments 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.

How Mortal Engines is a cult classic

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

How Mortal Engines can become a cult classic film 


If one can call a movie that had a rumored US 100 million production budget a cult classic, Mortal Engines is destined to become one.

But what is a cult classic?

It can be a film that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.

It wasn't just passed over once when first released, instead, people keep coming back to it, they celebrate it. 

Think Dune, Rocky Horror Picture Show, the original Mad Max, THX-1138, Eraserhead, The Big Lebowski, The Princess Bride, Barbarella. Blues Brothers, Pulp Fiction, and Plan 9 from Outerspace. Boba Fett was a cult figure in the Star Wars fandom too.

Not only is it that the film has a following, but it might also be that it didn't necessarily have an immediate and accepting audience. There may be an element of subculture appeal.

Steampunk is a subculture, right?

Enter Mortal Engines.

This film will be remembered as a flop for producer Peter Jackson and director Christian Rivers.

Which kind of helps the 'ignored by the world at large' movie thing.

But it will also be remembered for some amazing things contained in the movie.

The batshit insane concept alone is enough for this film to be remembered but the CGI of London was something that had never been done before.

It was a completely original vision that had been rendered to the screen by the Jackson production team.

It will be a cult classic because in many ways it is as corny as any corny film that been before. It's so earnest it parts the movie doesn't know how hysterically funny it is. But it has its charm and so it works.

It will also likely be a classic because it is forever tied to Peter Jackson so people will likely discover the movies for themselves for years to come.

Time will tell.

↠ What are 'Stalkers' in Mortal Engines?

Monday, April 5, 2021

What are the Stalker Soldiers in Mortal Engines?

CAUTION: EPIC SPOILERS BELOW FOR BOTH BOOK AND FILM


The Stalkers of Mortal Engines are a kind of 'universal soldier' combatant that can be programmed for warfare and assassination.

Stalkers and their variations play various parts in each of Philip Reeve's Quartet of Mortal Engines, Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain.

What are the origins of the Stalkers?


Stalkers originally were designed as mechanisms for humans to transfer their consciousness from one body to another, thus defeating death. The human mind could literally be saved to hard drive and then transferred into the body of another human.

It was long after the events of 60 Minute War that 'old technology; was adapted to make Stalkers into emotionless monsters to serve at the whim of their masters.

Often referred to as 'Resurrected Men' Stalkers were originally were built by the Nomadic Empires that battled each other across the volcano maze of what was once Europe long before the Traction Cities Era began.

The Nomadic Empires built Stalkers by recovering dead bodies from the battlefields, placing them in laboratories and then bringing them back 'life' by using 'Old Tech' machines that were physically connected to the dead body's nervous system. This practiced continued on unto the Traction City Era.

The bodies were also operated on so internal organs were no longer necessary. The designers also would graft on a metal carapace to the body. Weapons could be implanted into the body and the use of claws was a common feature. 

In the film, Shrike did not have claws, whereas he did in the novel.

The best subjects were taller specimens and they looked a scary sight with their glowing green eyes that all Stalkers had.

Stalkers are generally considered emotionless automatons, only acting at the will of their Masters.

Once a dead human is resurrected as a Stalker, they have no feelings, display no emotions and they will not have any memory of who they were before they died. Any past memories are jumbled messes and lost glimpses of their former life.

In Mortal Engines, the City of London manufactures its own Stalkers.

The London Guild of Engineers builds new Stalkers from dead prison convicts at their experimental prison in the Deep Gut. These particular Stalkers are not considered as refined as the infamous 'Shrike' due to the use of less sophisticated stalker-brains, the devices used in the brains and nerves of Stalkers.

The origins of these Resurrected Men, begin to be explained in the first prequel in the Mortal Engines series, Fever Crumb. Scrivener's Moon expands on the details as well,

shrike grike mortal engines
Shrike was played in the film by Stephen Lang.


What is the Shrike in Mortal Engines?


The 'Shrike' was the first Stalker to be mentioned in the original Mortal Engines book.

His character was under the control of the Mayor of London Traction City, Magnus Chrome. Chrome used the Shrike to find Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy and he was ordered to kill them.

At face value, this seemed a straightforward plot point however it was later revealed that The Shrike had once looked after Hester in a past life.

Due to his emotionally retarded state, his own goal in life was to turn Hester into a Stalker like himself, so they could live together forever.

In terms of memory retention, Shrike appears to be the exception to the rule as was able to recall his past life as 'Kit Solent' shortly before his death at the hands of Tom Natsworthy by sword. Kit Solent's tale and how he became a Stalker of the Lazarus Brigade was covered in the prequel novel, Fever Crumb.

In the film Shrike is played by veteran actor Stephan Lang - you may remember him as the evil general in Avatar.

>> Stuck for yeast when making beer? You can ferment your beer with baker's yeast! <<

Are Stalkers invulnerable?


Stalkers are heavily protected by their armour and but vulnerable to small arms fire and hand-held weaponry.

Due to their 'programming' they do not feel any pain as their nervous systems are rendered. This means they are pretty handy in hand to hand combat as even if their opponent is able to stab them or cause injury, they will not feel it and be able to continue to fight and thus increasing their chances of winning.

In Mortal Engines, Tom Natsworthy did manage to kill the Shrike Stalker with a sword by impaling it through his neck. The Shrike was however suffering from some performance issues as he'd actually been run over by a Traction City!

hester and shrike

But there's a reason Stalkers are known as Resurrected Men....

Anna Fang as a Stalker in the sequel novels


In Mortal Engines, Anna Fang was Tom and Hester's rescuer from the Shrike when he originally caught up with them on Airhaven.

Despite her heroics, Fang was ultimately killed by the dastardly Thaddeus Valentine in a sword fight.

In Predator's Gold it was revealed that a splinter group of the famed Anti Traction League called Green Storm had recovered Fang's body and applied the Stalker Resurrection techniques to it.

Green Storm had intended that the revived Anna Fang would lead them in battle against the remaining Traction Cities.

Eventually, the resurrected Fang stalker would take part in many battles and features in Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain where her character wreaks some pretty spectacular havoc using the ODIN device.

The Shrike concept art from Mortal Engines
Shrike fan art


Extra for Experts (spoilers):

Shrike Tattoo from Mortal Engines

Sunday, April 4, 2021

 

shrike-tattoo-mortal-engines

We all know Shrike, we've read about him, watched him and now you can regard him on Followthewhiterarebit's skin art.


We think this may be the only Mortal Engines tattoo that's been shared to the internet. A quick google search does not reveal a single one!


Fever Crumb's original cover appears to be the inspiration for the Shrike design:

fever crumb book coer

Fever Crumb was the first prequel novel to Philip Reeve's classic Mortal Engines series, we gave it a fairly favourable review back in the day.

Phillip Reeve didn't believe it was Peter Jackson when he emailed to say Mortal Engines was finally happening!

Sunday, March 21, 2021
phillip reeve peter jackson

Here's a great article with Phillip Reeve in Wired Magazine where Reeve reveals when he finally received contact from Peter Jackson confirming the movie was going ahead, he didn't believe it was really NZ's finest film maker!

Here's the tale:

Originally published in 2001, the film rights to Mortal Engines quickly started circulating the desks of Hollywood executives. Jackson eventually brought the option outright, though it would be over a decade after the book’s debut before the movie progressed any further. Then a year and a half ago Reeve received an email from the New Zealand director, announcing that production was underway.

“I was suspicious at first actually!” he says.

“Rumours about the project had slipped out a few years ago and from time to time people would pop up on Twitter asking me about whether Peter was adapting my book. Of course all I could say was ‘Oh I don’t suppose so’ and ‘you mustn’t believe everything you read on the internet haha’.

So when the email came through it occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t Peter at all but someone fishing for information."

The message was genuine and in May Reeve got the chance to watch some of the shoot in Wellington. The experience seemed unreal at times. "You’d see all these people going about creating these incredibly detailed sets and acting out something I’d made up in my head years ago. There was a scene I saw with a character called Anna Fang [played by South Korea-born singer Jihae]. She had this long red trench coat and jet black hair and was sitting in this rusty aviators bar; because everything else had all these muted earth tones the contrast made her really stand out. It was pretty much exactly how I’d originally pictured it, so when I saw it I thought, 'That’s me! I did that!’"

The aviator bar Reeves refers to is presumably the 'Gasbag and Gondola'.

There's plenty more in the article including Reeve's thoughts on ME's social commentary, and the revelation he has two alpacas!

I prefer the real Hester

Wednesday, February 17, 2021
I prefer the real hester meme

With all the fans going crazy (right or wrong) over Hester's scar design in the movie, I thought I'd toss some petrol on to the fire...

The long and complicated relationship of Hester Shaw and Shrike

Saturday, February 13, 2021

What is the relationship between Shrike and Hester Shaw?


Absolute book and film spoilers follow.

There are plenty of dysfunctional relationships in this world.

The Clintons.

Tom and Jerry.

Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn.

Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala.

Pineapple on pizza.

And then we have the relationship of Hester Shaw and Shrike.

Where do we start?

The beginning you say. But what is the beginning?

When we are introduced to Shrike in the Mortal Engines novel he is presented as Resurrected Man, a man turned into a robot killer using the technology of the ancients.

And he's been sent by Thaddeus Valentine and Magnus Chrome to kill Hester Shaw.

That's not a relationship, that's the Terminator chasing Sarah O'Conner kind of nightmare Hester is suddenly faced with.

But let's take a step back.

shrike mortal engines film


When Hester was about seven years old, Valentine attacked her parents, specifically her mother Pandora, in order to obtain MEDUSA. Suddenly she is orphaned and scarred for life both figuratively and literally.

As fate would have it, it was Shrike who found her post her escape from Valentine and this is where the long and complicated relationship begins.

Shrike was the one to continue to raise Hester. That's right, this cold, monstrous killing machine, thought to be completely dehumanized still had a heart.

In some kind of confused 'Tin Man following the Yellow Brick Road looking for a heart' concept, he cared for Hester while they lived on a traction town called Strole.

In later years, Hester leaves Shrike to begin her epic adventure to kill Thaddeus Valentine.

This depresses the dead guy somewhat as Hester is really the only thing in this world that he loves.

But why is this?

It's only briefly alluded to in the first novel but before he was turned into a Stalker, he was Kit Solent. This man was the very loving father of two children. His tale was expanded on greatly in the first prequel novel, Fever Crumb.

The Shrike we meet in Mortal Engines has managed to contain some of his human essence, his paternal nature. Hester thus serves as his replacement family.

Things then get a bit more complicated.

Even though Shrike acts under orders from London to kill Hester, he wants to kill her ANY WAY so that he can turn her into a Stalker like himself so they can both live together happily for ever as a family.

Yes, you read that right.

This mentality culminates in a confrontation wherein Hester actually agrees to this plan so that Tom's life may be spared.

How does that turn your traction wheels? 

What kind of oil to you think Shrike would use? The best chainsaw oil perhaps?

Nick Keller's Mortal Engines concept art designs

13th floor elevator concept art mortal engines

Concept art and design for the Mortal Engines film


Philip Reeve wrote the novel but it took a team of Kiwis based in Wellington to bring it to life for the silver screen. 

This featurette highlights the work that concept art Nick Keller of Weta Workshop, put into the design of Mortal Engines.

Is Nick the new Doug Chiang?

He's paid his dues having taken a turn at digital design for The Chronicles of Narnia’, ‘Under the Mountain’, ‘Avatar’, ‘Indiana Jones 4’, and ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy.

The design above is the '13th Floor Elevator' which is the ship of Historian and explorer, Thadeus Valentine. He's the protagonist of the film.

Have a look at some of Keller's featured work starting with the cockpit of the 13th Floor Elevator:

Cockpit of the 13th Floor Elevator art

 Traction City Tracks: Can you spy Hester and Tom?

hester and tom in london tracks concept art

You know how this turned out in the actual film:

hester tom london tracks

The Lions of London will eat you for lunch:

london lions mortal engines

nick keller design artist weta workshop

mortal engines concept design airhaven

Here's Airhaven:

airhaven concept art mortal engines


hester shaw london concept art picture


If you want to see more of Nick Keller's work, check out his site.  Great to see the Mortal Engines crew (New Zealanders at that!) getting some broad exposure as a result of their hard work.

Now, if we could only see some drawings of Skrike....

London is officially 2.5 km long!

Monday, January 11, 2021
london traction city schematic

How long is the traction city of London in Mortal Engines?


If you've ever read the Mortal Engines book and wondered how long the traction city of London officially is then the movie version has you covered.

This schematic shows London is 2.5 kilometers long! Big wheels keep on turning...
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