Mortal Engines (Movie Review)

Mortal Engines (Movie Review)
4 10

PLOT: On a post-apocalyptic Earth, rolling metropolises called Predator Cities rules the land. When Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) gets a chance to avenger her mother’s death, she risks her life to halt a global war.

REVIEW: So, what do you get when you become one of the biggest filmmakers in the world (Peter Jackson), clearly lose a step in the talent department over the subsequent decade, and then decide to hand your newest screenplay over to be directed by a first time filmmaker who happens to be your longtime SFX and storyboard artist (Christian Rivers) dating back to your first movie back in 1992? Oh, and give the unqualified tyro a $100 million budget while you’re at it? The short answer, you get MORTAL ENGINES, that’s what. Indeed, it’s right there in the title. MORTAL ENGINES is a dead-motored lemon; a huge, dumb, loud, paint my numbers, mega-budgeted, post-apocalyptic young adult novelty that solely exists for no other reason than to sell as many movie tickets as humanly possible. How else do you explain the 3D option, a format we all thought saw its moratorium post-2010? You can’t, nor can you hardly differentiate this giant generic spectacle with the similarly sounding MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, another lame and listless PG-13 live-action cartoon. Aside from some standout cinematography and production designs, here’s why MORTAL ENGINES is the lifeless motor it claims to be!

The future Earth is ruins. Following a cataclysmic event, likely nuclear, the core has been shattered and human populations have been hoisted onto rolling metropolises. The biggest and baddest are dubbed predator cities, a la London and Shang Guo, which rove around the wastelands of Earth “ingesting” smaller vehicular cities onto their cargo. As the film opens, due to a unneeded number of storylines, Rivers does a poor job of introducing us to the main character, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Hester is a scar-faced orphan looking to avenge her mother’s death by killing the ridiculously named Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who leads an energy project on London. Left to her own devices at age eight, Hester was eventually picked up and nurtured by a creepily skeletal, green-eyed robot corpse named Shrike (Stephen Lang). When Hester leaves Shrike to kill Valentine, Shrike in turn wants to kill Hester for betraying the promise of allowing Shrike to reanimate her as he is, a murderous zom-bot. No, really. Then Hester turns to Tom (Robert Sheehan), an aspiring aviator who clumsily flirts with Hester despite the fact the two actors have less chemistry than a high-school dropout.

This is one of the main problems with MORTAL ENGINES. By spending all of your money on GGI and VFX, you cannot afford A-list actors. And if you don’t have top notch actors, it’s damn hard to make a viewer forget about the bloated artifice of said technological FX and actually give one iota of compassion for the characters. There’s a serious problem when the most sympathetic character in the film is not your protagonist, but your villain, and not just any villain, but a green-eyed ghoul from the grave. Point in case, Stephen Land is twice the actor of both Hilmar and Sheehan combined. Not to besmirch them personally, it’s not their fault Rivers and Jackson prioritized the tech over the acting. Another part of this dynamic comes in the screenplay, which is so devoid of humor, and worse, littered with failed stabs at broad humor, that Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens bear serious blame for. This contributes the lack of chemistry between the two aforesaid leads, making it nearly impossible to fall for their romantic entanglements in the second half of the film. Even a late side character by the name of Anna Fang (Jihae) received a more sympathetic payoff then Hester, which cannot be.

Another glaring weak spot in the proceedings is just how many strands and subplots the film tries to negotiate. For one, the subplot involving Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George) is totally superfluous, and adds nothing other than a cute face and padded runtime. If the point was to make Valentine a fully rounded character, a flawed father and all, it did not play that way. Moreover, by the time the third act rolls around, never mind the personal revenge angles with Hester and Shaw (or even Shrike with Hester), we’ve now escalated into a full blown world war, with London and Shang Guo vying for global dominance. The whole thing just becomes too much, visually and diegetically, particularly when seen as little more than an excuse to unload all the expensive pyrotechnics in order to end the movie with a giant fireworks-show. By the end the whole thing devolves into an unintelligible fog of deafening nighttime explosions. It’d be perfectly fine, and fun in fact, if a movie declaring itself as nothing more than a hollow spectacle to actually succeed in being spectacular. Unfortunately, MORTAL ENGINES is rarely if ever as thrillingly marvelous as it needs to be, given all of its concessions. A few set-pieces stick out, sure, the production designs by Dan Hennah (KING KONG, THE HOBBIT) are handsome, and the cinematography by Simon Raby crisp, but nowhere near consistently enough.

Bottom line, MORTAL ENGINES is beneath Peter Jackson’s name. I don’t think it’s any coincidence he’s left the factory line tent-pole business to focus on more personal subject matter. You really can’t get more intimate and small-scale than doing a documentary, as he’s directed this year with THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a raw and humanizing account of WWI. Had that kind of pathos been injected, or even attempted, in MORTAL ENGINES, perhaps we’d be singing a different tune. As it is, MORTAL ENGINES sadly only proves what Hollywood knows these days: flicks are for kids!

Source: AITH



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