Box Office Flop, I think not!
If you haven't already checked out the film Mortal Engines, I highly recommend it.
There I many things I enjoyed about this film. Feel free to breeze through this review by skipping to any of the subjects below you might be interested in.
- Rich Backstory
- Deux Ex Machina Done Right
- Engaging Pacing
- Super Cinematic Moments
- Excellent Characters with Many Unknown Actors
- Similar Films, Yet Totally Original
I'll do my best not to insert spoilers. A clever reader might still be able to pick on up on hints as to what may happen in the movie, so do be careful not to read any further if you consider yourself so clever. This film isn't one of those twist-ending movies, like The Usual Suspects, so any spoilers you infer are not going to damage the enjoyment of the film.
Yes, steampunk is the latest craze for futuristic settings for films and books. Usually steampunk fits the mold of the post-apocalyptic world, with remnants of past technology remaining. People scavenge the technology, usually crude pieces of metal, glass, and machines. They come up with weird and unwieldy new technologies, such as telescope goggles, rapid fire dart guns, and steam tanks with bicycle wheels and periscopes.
This film follows this type of setting, and pushes the envelope even further. Imagine entire cities built upon the the heavy machinery of a single moving tank. That is literally what this entire film is about.
I really enjoyed the fact that this film doesn't answer every question a person may have. How did they build those things? Why would they waste so much effort building their cities like this? Instead, we are forced to accept this as reality from the very first scene, and explore the implications.
Over the course of the movie, we learn about what happened to the Earth before things became the way they are. We learn about wars, a major natural disaster that ripped about the planet, and the dangerous weapons that used to exist. The story also introduces important key characters in the past who made decisions that added importance to the characters who are still alive.
On top of a clear central storyline, I also appreciated the hundreds of little side-details present in nearly every scene. A pendent that looks like an egyptian eye. A cathedral transformed into a Roman-style temple. A pair of cartoon characters referred to by museum curators as American Dieties. All these odd-ball additions open doors to a greater expanding universe that can be explored further. Other movies and books can be written within this world to further expand. Other villains and heroes could easily exist, with no knowledge of the characters in this film, with totally different struggles, yet challenged by the same circumstances of this interweaving world. Plenty of potential of spin-off stories.
Deux Ex Machina Done Right
What does Deux Ex Machina mean? Literally "god out of the machine". It is basically a character added to a story with nearly godlike powers. Their literary role in a story is usually to finish the story with a final ending that cannot be undone. Classically, Shakespeare enjoyed using this motif in comedies to quickly end the story with a character who absurdly resolves every twisted plotline with a bit of witty wisdom stuffed inside a lengthy monologue.
In many movies and books, when a Deux Ex Machina character is added, they tend to eclipse all other characters. A perfect example is the character Thanos in the Avengers movies. Not even the entire universe of superheroes put together stand a chance against him, and so their amazing super powers become laughably pointless. There is very little purpose to any decision any of the other characters make as a result. By misusing the Deux Ex Machina, the story feels less inspiring, and easy to predict the ending. Guess who wins. The big guy with the Infinity Guantlet. Duh!
In this film, Mortal Engines, one character named Shrike provides the role of the Deux Ex Machina. Without spoiling who the character is, I'll simply say this character initially appears as a villain, and later you start to love them. Somehow this character is inserted wildly halfway through the film, and turns the story upside down in this already upside down steampunk style reality.
Although tasked with the role to eliminate the heroine, we come to realize Shrike's true task is much more profound. Brilliantly this same character removes itself from the story, so the characters can defeat their true enemy on their own. Sure plot would have removed Shrike and went on without this side-story, but the characters would not have been as compelling without the earth shattering mark he leaves on them.
Shrike's name is also interesting to me. It is a combination of Shrek and Shriek. He is an unstoppable juggernaut trapped inside a ghostly hollow shell that grants him almost undead-like super abilities. Does he have the soft heart of a beloved ogre, or the long dead cold remains of a lost soul trapped in an empty shell? You'll have to decide for yourself.
For me, this is amazing writing for a story. We have flawed, yet heroic characters who are self-driven to work together to save the world. On their way, they also had to face off against the most powerful character in the universe. Try moving a mountain! No easy task. Remember, Captain America and all his Avenger friends couldn't even harm Thanos with all their super powers combined. No, this is more like young Luke facing off against the much more powerful Vader. It will take more than power and force to find a better resolution.
Suspense, interest, action, and drama are sorely mishandled in most American films. Hollywood films these days are practically unwatchable, and painfully unbearable to have to endure more than once.
I believe this film was made in New Zealand. Peter Jackson was one of the lead producers for this film, and his presence is definitely felt by the sprinkling of many magical moments introduced. Sometimes it almost feels exactly like Lord of the Rings when they zoom in on Hugo Weaving's face. That man has the most amazing eyebrows, doesn't he?
As far as action and suspense, this film has everything I want in a film. Explosions, fear of falling from great heights, gunfire, spinning blades, blood, dirty hand-top-hand combat, and unhinged opponents with unpredictable behaviors. Even the good guys in this film break the tropes and sometimes do things so bad, you wonder how far they are willing to go. But the film never stops to let the characters think too carefully about these things, as it's always one big action scene to the next.
This film actually does have a bit of humor included. However, it is more in the flow of British style humor. Nobody is trying to be funny. Instead, things are just funny because characters are so absurd that they have adjusted so fully into their own ridiculous lifestyles. A particularly weird pair live inside a tank that drives like a centipede, where they drink green ooze tea. Drinking tea is favorite activity in England, however it seems to have de-evolved in this oddball future world. Another man auctions off slaves for pennies, with great glee. There are all kinds of weird interactions with strange characters for the heroes to dig through to keep things interesting.
There is a fair amount of drama and exposition that unfolds in this film, but it is slowly distributed in small bits here and there, and separated by the rising action and subplots happening with other characters. Even during these slower parts of the film, it is often a flashback to something that happened in the distant past, which is incredibly fascinating to watch. It is like watching a dream, with flashes of the most disturbing moments, making it easy to assume the more obvious details about relationships between the characters. What?! A film that lets the viewer imagine things that might have happened or not? What a novel concept!
Super Cinematic Moments
With the amazing score released for this film, and splendidly painted landscapes reinventing New Zealand style mountains and wilderness into an awesomely sundered biome, there are many moments when the camera settles more slowly on these views to fully appreciate the gravity of the world. It really lends itself as the perfect backdrop for the action and drama unfolding.
Some moments in the film will be particularly memorable. Probably the hardest to forget is the amazing red flying machine that rescues the heroes over and over. It is a bit like the Great Eagle in the Lord of the Rings who rescues Gandalf (two other famous Deus Ex Machinas, by the way). Another rich moment was viewing the hidden stairway passages inside of London. Even inside this monstrous machine city, a shadowy labyrinth of stairs provides a heavenly gateway leading to a hoped for destination that nobody knew until that moment that it could be reached. I also really enjoyed watching the formation team of aviators as they try to disable the death machine that resembles the Death Star in some way. They even go inside looking to destroy the core, and to save the princess, as a nice nod to a classic sci-fi film.
Excellent Characters with Many Unknown Actors
Apart from Hugo Weaving, many of the actors in this film are quite unrecognizable. I do have to say Hugo Weaving, apart from rocking those amazing eyebrows, he does a great job of constructing a new character for this film, unlike any other role he's played. He is a compassionate, loving father, respected hero and leader, and yet also hides his true self from even those closest to him. He is also a cruel, unmerciful, power-hungry, tyrant super-genius.
There are a lot of British and New Zealand actors in this film. Additionally many other ethnicity, particularly Asians provide an important role in the film's unfolding narrative. None of it feels force fed. With all of these moving cities in the film, we get these strong culture clashes, and yet have all adapted to clearly exist within the same melting pot of this disgusting apocalyptic world that I find mesmerizing.
The two main characters who act as the heroes were very well balanced. The woman felt believable to me as the wounded, dangerous assassin with a rough past. She trusts nobody and has an icy nature about her, willing to discard any cheap friend for a scrap of food if necessary to survive. Yet, she has layers to be explored. We all love layers. Onions.
The man who plays opposite is a funny mixture of quirks that are familiar. Sometimes I see him as Harry Potter, sometimes like Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Who, or Doctor Strange. He is a young man who is more talented with machines than he is with people. Sometimes he talks too fast and says things that make others around him think is peculiar. When caught up in the moment, he can get a bit hot-headed. It is his flaw that is also his strength, because he often causes accidents resulting in good or bad luck. Dressed in a ragged tailsuit, he comes from a classy heritage, but his life and relationships have all become a bit frayed over time. The actor portraying him was very convincing as showing him to be desperate to change his circumstances. He knew his world was falling apart, but he never stopped trying to pick up the pieces. Even with things falling apart faster than he can catch all the pieces, he was totally dedicated to the immediate goal at hand.
Similar Films, Yet Totally Original
Still not convinced to watch this film yet?
Jeez, you're a toughie! Lighten up.
Here are some similar film to this one. If you like the core style of these films listed below, then I think you will probably also enjoy Mortal Engines.
Mad Max Thunderdome
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Pirates of the Carribean
Evil Dead: Army of Darkness
V is for Vendetta
The Neverending Story II
Superman (all of the Christopher Reeve films)
The Terminator, and T2
The Hunger Games
This film was a flop in the theatres. I think it was marketed on a cheap budget, and probably wasn't released during the best time of year. Relying mostly on the sci-fi machines to interest people to watching, and less on a well-known cast of stars, I think that may have mislead people into thinking this film would be lame.
Apparently this film already has a strong cult following. Don't believe everything you read on the internet. I put this DVD on reserve at the library. I was put in a queue behind 50+ other people who also reserved it, and the library only bought one copy. That only happens when people are recommending it to their friends, or they want to watch again after seeing it or not seeing it in the theatres. It was worth the wait, and I already want to watch it again and again.
Let's hope more movies, tv shows, and books like this one are made to expand on the original. This film is one of a kind.