Cinema Dispatch: Mortal Engines

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Mortal Engines and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Christian Rivers

There are always WAY too many movies coming out this time of year which means that I can fall a bit behind or forget to see movies altogether.  HOPEFULLY that won’t be a big issue this year; especially if I can still find time to go out and see THIS film!  Yes, it’s another movie adapted from a Young Adult novel that’s the first in a series, but unlike recent attempts like The Darkest Minds (ugh…), it looks like someone put some real effort into this thing with just how absurd the premise is and how much money looks to have been spent trying to realize it!  Can this big budgeted world saving extravaganza be the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games, or is this yet another example of Hollywood having no idea how to adapt these kinds of books to the big screen?  Let’s find out!!

In the far off future, after the bombs dropped and presumably after the Fallout games, humanity has decided that the best way to live in the ravaged hellscape of post-apocalypse Europe is to build cities on top of their cars and race them around looking for resources.  I’m not quite sure how this is more efficient than say using airplanes and smaller vehicles to find stuff and bring it back to stationary cities, but then I guess I’m from the BOMBED INTO OBLIVION part of history, so what do I know?  The biggest and baddest of these cities is London (which STILL waves the Union Jack a thousand years later) run by the nefarious Thaddeus Valentine who you KNOW is bad because he’s played by Hugo Weaving, and when they capture one of the smaller roaming cities he learns that there’s at least one person out there who’s quite cross with him.  Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) was one of the captured city’s refugees, but it was all a ploy to get her that much closer to Valentine who she takes a stab at but only causes minor damage because some dude named Tom (Robert Sheehan) sees the attack coming and stops her from finishing the job.  Through an elaborate chase scene, Tom chases her down to… I guess the city’s trash hole where she tells him that Valentine killed her mother before escaping the city through said trash hole.  Valentine, realizing that one of his loyal peons has heard the ravings of an attempted murder decides that the rational thing to do here is not to convince him that she was lying or even to outright murder him, rather he throws him down the trash hole as well; very much alive and at least a little bit peeved by the whole experience.  From there he finds Hester again and they tentatively team up to find a new city for him and a new assassination plot for her.  Along the way they’ll run into raiders, slavers, some robot dude named Shrike (Stephen Lang), and even an Anti-London resistance movement head up by Anna Fang (Jihae) of which Hester is apparently the key to their success and not just one of many people who have a legitimate grievance against Valentine.  Speaking of whom, he also has some sort of plan to make a Doomsday Weapon out of old technology which he will use to… conquer the world I guess?  In any case, will Hester and Tom learn to become friends over the course of their ridiculously convoluted journey?  Why DID Valentine kill Hester’s mother, and what other secrets is she hiding from everyone around her?  For all the stuff these cities have scavenged, did any of them manage to find the plot?

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“Where do we go now?”     “I don’t know, wait for something to explode.”

I’ve seen FAR worse when it comes to YA adaptations, but this is almost the PERFECT example of everything wrong with them which I guess gives it SOME kind of value but outside of that it’s very much an overlong waste of time.  I mean I could probably copy and paste half my review from The Crimes of Grindelwald and fill the other half with a middling amount of praise before calling it a day, but I guess I should at least TRY to come up with something new to say even if this movie didn’t.  It’s technically ambitious to be sure and there are quite a few things that work in isolation, but all together it’s a plodding slog through plot points that barely have time to register before being moved past, a lore that is so underdeveloped that the movie has to stop several times to explain itself whenever something new shows up, and it has maybe the most blatant example of a character who’s only there to make sure the plot doesn’t stop dead in its tracks that I’ve ever seen in a movie.  I don’t know who thought that making yet another bloated non-starter of a franchise was a good idea when films like that are already thick on the ground, but I guess kudos to them for putting so much money behind it for seemingly no reason other than complete and total hubris.

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In their boldest move yet, Universal Studios will now come to YOU!

We might as well get the good stuff out of the way first since there are much more bad things to go over as well.  I liked a good chunk of the actors in this, especially Hugo Weaving who is a virtuoso at playing bad guys.  Okay, his plot seems a bit… extreme given the circumstances of the world and what he expects to accomplish, but you could hardly ask for a better actor to try and sell this kind of material.  There are certain ideas about this world world that I do think are interesting, particularly the engines themselves, and while the first act feels just as rushed as everything else, the film does take time to explore some of the more interesting aspects of it like how history is preserved through scavenging wreckage (wreckage they cause by the way which is a not so subtle nod to British Imperialism) and some of the day to day challenges of living on what is essentially a giant car.  Sadly the movie doesn’t take long to completely lose track of itself and start throwing out ridiculous concepts (why do they have giant whirring blades to cut up captured engines instead of dismantling them for resources?), but I can see a decent movie (or perhaps even a television mini-series) made at a MUCH smaller scale in this overblown monstrosity.

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“One of these days, Mr. Anderson.  I will find you.”

The big issue here is the structure and pacing of the plot.  We’re just flying by everyone and everything to cover as much ground as possible and it ultimately dilutes everything we see.  It just feels so WASTEFUL that we’re setting up this fantastic premise with so much possibility, and yet we’re obscuring almost all of it so that we can make it a SAVE THE WORLD narrative yet again.  Maybe that’d work for a sequel or the conclusion to a trilogy, but audiences can’t be expected to become invested in these characters, this world, and all the minutia quickly enough for something like THE WORLD IS GOING TO END to feel like anything other than lousy screenwriting.  Here’s an idea!  The movie is called Mortal Engines, so why don’t we have a movie ABOUT the main engine in this!?  You’re telling me that there is so little going on upon this technological marvel of a civilization that we couldn’t tell ONE story on it instead of like seven stories on all the places around it!?  There’s not enough time in this movie for them to establish the Engines, what life on them is like, whatever the heck this doomsday device is, slave traders in the wastelands, the rebellion, the rebellion’s ridiculous Bioshock base of operations, resurrected zombie robots, and oh yeah a revenge story intertwined with a buddy road trip.  IT’S TOO MUCH, and while I still think this is FAR superior to that last Harry Potter movie, at least THAT film had its lore cinematically established BEFORE they went all in on confusing interlocking plot minutia!  AND WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BEVIS!?  Sure, I had to look up his name to remember who he was, but I ALSO remember that he just completely disappeared from the movie right as the third act was ramping up!

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Pour one out for Bevis, wherever he may be…

Nothing really connects to one another organically and the plot has to keep contriving reasons for characters to go from place to another.  The character of Shrike is absurdly ham fisted with a backstory that doesn’t register emotionally or have any real reason to exist (his role in Hester’s story could have been easily replaced by something else) and he just stomps his way through the film shoving characters from one chase scene and absurdly detailed setting to another; as if he was working on behalf of the editor to make sure the film doesn’t sag for even a minute.  It has the opposite effect however because he goes to such absurd lengths to get Hester from one place to another that it undercuts everything that happens around him and by extension her.  I’m particularly irritated by one part where in the span of MAYBE ten minutes we’re supposed to be introduced to the resistance, its members, and its base of operations before Shrike comes to ruin everything.  I mean, how are we supposed to care about ANY of that when we’re not given any time to freaking BREATH before the jerk comes in and tells everyone to pick up their crap and hustle over to the NEXT overblown setting that we’re not gonna take even a little bit of time to explore!?  This is what I mean when I say it’s wasteful.  There is SO much money being thrown around here for exotic locations, massive infrastructure, and about a thousand years’ worth of lore, but someone thought it’d be a great idea to just flash by ALL of this instead of making any of it the slightest bit meaningful.  By the time we get to the big WAR at the end, I really couldn’t find any reason to care about either side.  The bad guys were the bad guys to be sure, but who they were fighting were people we were introduced to maybe fifteen minutes prior, and the rampant destruction doesn’t feel any more significant than the other rampant destruction we spent the whole movie being inured to.  I don’t know if I’d call this movie PADDED because nothing feels overly insignificant, but the structure and plotting is so bad that all the stuff that SHOULD be important ends up ringing completely hollow which is the last thing you want for something that’s supposedly there to launch a franchise.

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“I was actually very close friends with your mother.  She wanted me to take care of you if anything ever happened to her.”     “Wait, aren’t you like only five years older than me?  Why the heck would she entrust me to a teenager!?”     “Don’t you sass me, young lady!”

This isn’t the worst of these films, and it at least has a decent amount of production behind it, but for so much promise and effort, the movie is just as ho-hum as plenty of other YA adaptations.  I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time going to the theater to see this, and it’s not even an interesting enough kind of bad for you to bother with it when it gets a home release.  Its mistakes are the same mistakes lots of other films make and its failures are as underwhelming as the box office has been for it.  The only thing I’ll PROBABLY remember about this movie is how good a job the marketing did at convincing me that Peter Jackson was the director.  Seriously, the only reason I at any point was interested in this movie was because I thought he was behind it which I guess was the point of the somewhat deceptive marketing, and considering the final product we got I can hardly blame them for trying.

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