Saturday, December 12, 2020

Mortal Engines (2018)

It’s based on a book, but there’s nothing literary about the end product. It’s a political metaphor, but the metaphor falls apart whenever something has to blow up. There are some great visuals, but after two hours you won’t care. Without a proper story, none of it matters.


The male protagonist is a dopey British guy with a penchant for dubbing. The shooting script wasn’t dumb enough for little kids, so it’s better to hear the guy spell everything out.

The female protagonist (the “straight man” of the pair) has a facial scar. It’s a decent prosthetic appliance, but putting it in the same place every day must have been a challenge. If scars are hidden under clothing, you can just show them in key scenes. However, this film is not content with key scenes, shoving special effects into almost every shot.

The film reminds me of the Star Wars special edition re-edits, which were done because George Lucas thought the 1977 Star Wars wasn’t accessible enough to babies. Mortal Engines is safety-gated and color-coded. It’s all part of Universal’s long-term strategy of dumbing down cinema for international audiences.

The story is basic enough: cities on wheels, London is evil, heroes stop the evil empire. Everybody just has to deal with their wheel world. Except for an Asian country with a large wall, who somehow managed to avoid the whole mess and stay rooted to the ground. Did I mention China financed the film? It’s all fine until a Chinese dragon shoots a laser at a cyborg zombie, at which point the film loses some of its gritty realism.

There is a lot of symbolism in the film. Nobody relates to a cyborg zombie, but an airship with Cyrillic insignia defending a China-like walled nation sends a clear message. This is not a criticism; send whatever messages you want in your film. I enjoy the intricacies of international conflict, so I don’t mind the flavor in this cyborg zombie movie made for babies.

The political messaging gets a little muddled when an American artifact is used to stop a British invasion, considering the American Revolution was in a different time period from the current US-China trade war, but there was probably a clearer metaphor in the original script before the rewrites dumbed it down. The thing about American-Chinese co-productions (or in this case, American-New Zealand co-productions with Chinese financing) is that the writing is secondary to effects. Studios assume most people don’t care about the story.

For young children, the drama would probably be effective. It would be easier to sit through if the damn thing were shorter than two hours, but the filmmakers had a lot of bullshit to put on screen, so it is what it is.

It would have been nice to explore the tragic characters and their futile efforts. Maybe the villain should have been less of a cartoon, or maybe the cyborg zombie should have been a visual manifestation of grief or something. Maybe looking like a cyborg is a fashion statement, while looking “natural” is a fundamentalist aesthetic. Maybe the ultimate tragedy is what “human” has become, progress lost, and the doomsday machine is really a gateway to salvation. The target audience may not care about plot, motivation, or other details, but many people do.