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.

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