If you have not seen Mortal Engines and want to have a shot at enjoying it – do not read this review. You have been warned.
When I sat down to watch Mortal Engines, I did not have a lot of expectations. I had not read any of the related books nor had I read any reviews of the movie. I knew that the screenplay was penned by Peter Jackson and crew who had written The Lord of the Rings Trilogy screenplays (three of my favorite movies of all time), but even that did not give me any real anticipation of this particular movie. Good thing.
I would not say that I hated Mortal Engines as much as I was simply bored by it. One dimensional characters, a lumbering storyline and ham-fisted movie tropes all combine together into a perfect cacophony of icky gray blandness. If Hunger Games was a zesty southwest omelette, Mortal Engines is cold, unflavored oatmeal.
BUT, instead of going on and on about specifically what is wrong with this movie and offering nothing constructive, I am going to give a try at putting my money where my big mouth is; I am going to offer a critique and then try to offer a workable solution. You can let me know in the comments how great – or not great – of a job that I do.
Okay, let’s get started.
What the hell is going on and why are cities on tank tracks / wheels?
Let’s just call this problem the complete and utter lack of exposition. Here is what you get from this move: There was a big apocalyptic event caused by this machine called “Medusa” that took all of an hour to transform the world into a wasteland. Now cities are on wheels! EXCEPT for the part of the world that is NOT on wheels but it is behind a really, really big wall. Makes sense, right? Right?!?
What we need here, is some good old fashioned exposition to let us know exactly what the crap is going on.
Some of you out there hate direct exposition in a movie; that’s fair. But, what I think you actually hate is badly done direct exposition. If done correctly, direct exposition can help set a movie up to move forward with all wheels churning instead of leaving the movie audience scratching their heads and asking: why are all of the cities on wheels again? An example of good direct exposition was done by *GASP* Peter Jackson at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Rings. The first five minutes of the movie explain thousands of years of history in an entertaining and awe inspiring way. We see armies decimated by a mighty evil being. We see a magical ring float to the bottom of a river to be discovered thousands of years later. We are being told the history of Middle Earth and we are loving every second of it. This kind of exposition to explain what Medusa was, why it was and what is caused could have been easily just as entertaining in Mortal Engines. It took me Google searching to figure out that the cities were on wheels because apparently the tectonic plates of earth had been disrupted by the Medusa weapon. Why the movie could not have told us that, I do not know.
The Cardboard Cutout Characters
Why is Tom prancing about the wastelands as if he is vacation? Why is he utterly unaffected by being attacked by cannibals and almost being enslaved? Not to mention that he just found out that the savior of his society is a lying sociopathic serial killer bent on destruction for destruction’s sake (more on that later)! Tom needs to be hurting. Tom needs to be questioning the very nature of his existence because his whole world just got turned upside down. But instead he is a happy clown who is bouncing around the wastelands just waiting for his chance to fly a Rickshawesque plane thingy. Be less Tom and be more Jon Snow.
Why does Thaddeus Valentine want to kill everyone just to recreate a weapon that seriously screwed up the earth the first time around? I mean, seriously – what is his motivation? It ain’t family – after all, he killed the mother of one of his children and all but abandoned both of his daughter when it suited his purposes. It is not wealth – he seems to care little for the fact that he is throwing his entire life away to blow up a wall. What is behind that wall anyway? Do we even know that? We need a backstory here, folks. Maybe Thaddeus had a father that was abusive? Maybe his ancestors helped develop Medusa to start with? Just an iota of a reason for his actions would be better than the nothing that we are left with.
Hester Shaw wants to kill Thaddeus Valentine because he killed her mother. That’s all you really need to know as far as the makers of this movie are concerned and by limiting Hester in that way, they are missing out on a goldmine of character development. Hester was raised by an undead zombie cyborg names Shrike who is, by all accounts, the most complex and interesting character this movie has to offer (What does it say when the movie’s best character is literally the emotionless dead guy?). Shrike was a man once with a family. He yearns for the life that he had before becoming a killing machine in way that he does not understand. He has a photo of himself as human with his son that he hides away even from himself. He collects dolls and broken things and repairs them because he longs to repair the broken thing that he himself has become. He takes in Hester – scarred and broken from her battle as a child with Valentine – and he nurses her back to health. All the while, he is still a green eyed emotionless killing machine. Shrike wants a family so bad that he makes a cyborg body for Hester and makes her promise to join him in his eternal life of not-quite-living. He is a tragic and triumphant figure full of contradictions that we can all relate to. Focussing more on the relationship between Shrike and Hester would have helped to humanize Hester as well. A good chunk of the first part of the movie should have been devoted to that story instead of giving it short shrift as paltry flashbacks.
Boring, Safe Storytelling
Look – within the first 15 minutes of this movie, we know who the bad guy is, who the big-hearted romantic lead good guy is, who the grizzled female lead who will give into love is and how this is all going to play out in the end with the good guys winning (living) and the bad guy losing (dying). The only thing that takes a while to get introduced into the movie is the best part of the movie: Shrike.
So, let’s do a little exercise. Let’s flip things around a bit and see how it plays out:
The scene is a dark scrubland at dusk. There is red dirt rock everywhere. A few clumps of grass grow here and there. A single tree is silhouetted against the setting sun. The tree and the land begin to shake. The shaking grows in intensity until rocks jump on the ground and a flock of small birds erupts from the tree. Suddenly, an unbelievably large tank tread is roaring deafening by, missing the tree by inches. It digs and cuts at the land. As the vehicle moves further away, we see that it is, in fact, a small collection of buildings undulating on some sort of flexible platform set atop the giant tank treads. In its wake – close to the camera view – it has churned up a human skull caked in dirt. We watch the mobile town drive further into the distance. Suddenly a large metal, claw-like food crushes the skull like an egg. The camera pans up to show us the back of Shrike, with an eerie green glow emanating from his face. He clutches a tattered doll in his hand and we hear his voice whisper one word, “Hester.”
Cut to the half covered face of Hester Shaw as she walks the streets of what is obviously the same small city that trundled past in the opening. She peers back over her shoulder ominously.
From here, things would be similar to the movie where Hester’s city meets up with other small cities and then gets consumed by London. But now, let’s change things again. Instead of Tom intervening and saving Valentine’s life, resulting in Valentine all but yelling “I’m the villain” as he pushes Tom to his doom, Shrike boards London in secret soon after the smaller city is consumed. When Hester makes her strike at Valentine, Shrike intervenes to try to stop Hester from becoming the killer that he has become. A struggle ensues between the forces of London and Shrike. Hester flees and Tom pursues. Tom slips and falls after Hester when trying to pull her up from the swirling vortex exiting London. Shrike is captured and Valentine, using some of the technology he has accumulated, hacks into Shrike’s memories, learns who Hester is and reprograms him to execute Hester and Tom. Up until the point that he commands Shrike to kill Hester, we are lead to believe that he is trying to gather information to help save London and to send Shrike to rescue Tom and bring Hester back to justice. This would be a much more gradual and satisfying reveal of Valentine as the villain.
This version of the movie would proceed in a more realistic manner with a slower pace and with a more in depth and realistic look at the characters.
I could go on with several more aspects of this movie that could use some TLC; heck, I wrote like the first 25 pages of a new screenplay for this joint in my head in the shower the other day! Alas, though; I have other things to attend to at the moment. I have to go get my house fitted for wheels just in case the tectonic plates doing the tango and I have to drive it away from bigger cities trying to eat me!