The UnPopular Opinion: Mortal Engines

THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!


Isn't it amazing how two movies with virtually the exact same plot can have such wildly different receptions? Take ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL and MORTAL ENGINES: both films are set in dystopian futures and concern young women seeking retribution for harm brought to them while demonstrating a strength lacking in the face of totalitarian oppression. Both feature stunning special effects and a wholly realized and unique vision of the future. Both films also have acclaimed producers known for their own special effects-laden epic blockbusters and a cast of relative unknowns with familiar supporting players. Both come from source material that have cult followings and both are crammed with enough world-building for multiple movies forced into a two hour run time. While neither film has lit up the box office, the fan reception for ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL has been overwhelming while MORTAL ENGINES sputtered the moment it debuted late in 2018. As much as I enjoyed ALITA, I was shocked to discover that I enjoyed MORTAL ENGINES just as much and feel it deserves a much larger audience.

The plot of MORTAL ENGINES is stupid. I say that as endearingly as I possibly can because all genre plots are pretty flimsy. From STAR WARS to AVATAR, the over-the-top characters and settings of science fiction and fantasy films require a great deal of suspension of disbelief for them to work. You have to go into MORTAL ENGINES with that suspension cranked to the maximum because this is a story about gigantic rolling cities. A steampunk wet dream, there is little logical reason for these cities to move the way they do, but the broad strokes of good versus evil, rich versus poor, strength versus faith, and love conquers all come through loud and clear. MORTAL ENGINES borrows heavily from George Lucas' saga as well as LORD OF THE RINGS, MAD MAX, and countless other similar franchises over the years. The difference is that MORTAL ENGINES has it's tongue firmly in cheek for the entire film.

action, Adventure, Christian Rivers, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Lang, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Mortal Engines, 2018, The UnPopular Opinion

MORTAL ENGINES feels very much like a Peter Jackson film. Scripted by Jackson alongside frequent collaboraters Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh, there are numerous moments throughout the film that recall Jackson's earlier works like DEAD-ALIVE and MEET THE FEEBLES. There is a humor and a New Zealand sensibility to the entire production which distances it from other Hollywood tentpoles. Every character references the ancient world of the early 21st century with a nod and a wink, giving us plenty of inside jokes about our technology and culture and how foreign it appears to the citizens of this fictional land. But rather than come across as groan-worthy, it connects the viewer to this dense mythology and provides a connection point between 2019 and the landscape of MORTAL ENGINES.

What also sets this movie apart from other fantasy epics is the lead. So often, the hero is someone like Rey, Katniss Everdeen or Luke Skywalker who embark on a hero's journey to reach their full potential. With MORTAL ENGINES, Hester Shaw is already mid-journey and we accompany her with Tom Natsworthy serving as our entry into the narrative. Tom, played by The Umbrella Academy's Robert Sheehan, is not the stirring protagonist you would expect. At the same time, Hera Hilmar gives one heck of a leading performance and gives us a heroine who is already well on her way to her destiny. Couple that with Hugo Weaving who is always a solid villain and you have most of the legwork done for you. Combine all of these elements and you have a story that has a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. Luckily, Jackson is used to telling big tales in the confines of a feature film.

World-building has earned some negative connotations in recent years as many erroneously use it as a synonym for franchising. World-building requires laying the foundation for a massive fictional realm and often goes hand in hand with designing an ongoing franchise. While it is highly unlikely we will ever get a sequel to MORTAL ENGINES, it is a shame because it was such an amazing attempt. The diverse cast of characters and unique realms that populate this story could have fed multiple movies. In fact, I want to see prequels chronicling the adventures of Anna Fang (Jihae). Fang is a bit of a wasted character here, meeting her demise far too early, but shows that even the supporting players in this movie have enough standout qualities to warrant further investment. So much of MORTAL ENGINES reminded me of a teen-appropriate MAD MAX that it is fair to call this FURY ROAD LITE and I mean that as a compliment. The action and storyline here are worthy of George Miller's franchise and should have been just as lauded.

First time director Christian Rivers, whose experience working with Peter Jackson dates all the way back to DEAD-ALIVE, makes few missteps with MORTAL ENGINES, likely because his mentor was close by and helped him get his footing as a filmmaker. The resulting film feels very much like if Terry Gilliam had directed CLOUD ATLAS and that is high praise. Some may say that top caliber special effects are not enough to buouy a film, but MORTAL ENGINES also benefits from a brilliant score by Junkie XL and excellent editing by Jonno Woodford-Robinson. The vibrant colors of the movie pop off the screen giving this movie far more life and energy than Jackson gave to any of the three films in THE HOBBIT trilogy.

action, Adventure, Christian Rivers, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Lang, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Mortal Engines, 2018, The UnPopular Opinion

MORTAL ENGINES is a silly concept told with the highest caliber of filmmaking. There is a lot of familiarity in the characters and story, but the sheer creativity visually on display sets this movie apart. At the same time, that we see so many other movies when we watch MORTAL ENGINES should be treated more as homage than as derivative. MORTAL ENGINES is a lot to take in and the unfamiliarity most viewers have with the source material begs repeated viewings to try and process everything on screen. I already have found myself wanting to revisit this movie more than THE HOBBIT and that is a testament to both Christian Rivers and Peter Jackson. It is rare that we get such a starkly distinct movie in wide release which makes it a shame that so few gave this movie a chance. But, I beg you to watch it if you can and I think you will enjoy it as much as you did ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL.

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to [email protected] or spell it out in the comments below. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!
Source: JoBlo.com



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