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Mortal Engines

Universal // PG-13 // March 12, 2019
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 14, 2019 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

There are four installments that make up Philip Reeve's quartet of "Mortal Engines" novels, built around the popularized steampunk brand of post-apocalyptic atmosphere that came about following a manmade collapse of society. A wide array of characters from across the spectrum of morality comprise the people who inhabit Reeve's world: a rebellious orphan with a physical abnormality, a promising intellectual limited by their obligations, the conflicted daughter of an authoritarian, and so on. In short, no shortage of potential for a new cinematic franchise cranks-‘n-spurts at the core of "Mortal Engines", potential that Lord of the Rings mastermind Peter Jackson has been trying to bring into reality for over a decade since he bought the adaptation rights. Much like the fantasy director's return to Middle-earth, however, the big-screen Mortal Engines exhibits the symptoms of wanting to recapture the magic of other franchises instead of a pure desire to realize a new world, and the product merely clunks along out of necessity instead of inspiration.

While Jackson may not have directed the film himself, his creative presence can still be felt in his position as co-writer and producer, while his longstanding art and visuals manager Christian Rivers makes his feature-length debut as director. They throttle the audience into the realm of a not-so-distant future version of Great Britain and Europe ravaged by an event called the Sixty Minute War, which left a wasteland in its wake where giant moving mechanical cities engage in battles between one another. Typically, smaller cities are "consumed" by larger ones, its citizens assimilated and resources dispersed. With older technology valued the relics of an ancient and revered civilization, the citizens of the cities engage in post-apocalyptic forms of ambition within these mechanized cities. Some -- like aspiring historian Tom (Robert Sheehan) -- operate under the lordship of authoritarians like Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide) and Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the leaders of London and its persistent drive to consume other cities; others, like the masked rogue Hester (Hera Hilmar), scrape along in smaller pacifistic cities and plot how to dethrone those capitalistic entities.

Fast-forwarding the global state to a point where entire cities are not only rolling around by machinery, but also engaging in combat with one another is a tall order, demanding lots of groundwork to be laid. There's no shortage of this in Mortal Engines: beginning with another deep voiceover in the vein of Galadriel's from LOTR, the film starts to explain how the world arrived at this state … and then, transitioning into frequent conversations with obvious exposition intentions, keeps explaining and explaining, instead of showing and allowing one to experience it. The screenplay from Jackson and his frequent co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh understands that an audience can't be haphazardly thrown into this environment without numerous moving parts making some degree of sense, but their efforts are bogged down by the obligation -- and rush -- to do so and how that takes away from the writers' enthusiasm in creating a new cinematic world. The process of running down a checklist to cover the story's bases gets confused with world-building; fortunately, this doesn't weigh down the film's pacing amid the chatter, remaining brisk regardless.

The purpose-driven nature of those conversations in Mortal Engines also detracts from the depth of the characters populating the mobile cities, to which there's no shortage of ‘em to introduce and flesh out in a short amount of time. What happens, as a result, is that they come across as shadows -- often forgettable ones -- of personalities in similar sci-fi and dystopian young-adult franchises, chief among them being its numerous "borrowed" elements from Star Wars and Harry Potter. Lead characters Hester and Tom function like an amalgamation of Luke Skywalker and The Boy Who Lived that's been split off, reassembled and packaged as different personalities, and the absence of onscreen chemistry between ‘em leaves the unremarkable, yet altogether tolerable performances from Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan to work with only those remnants of their influences as substance. There are standouts, such as Hugo Weaving's intensity as the not-so-morally gray villain Valentine and Jihae as the slick, magnetic scoundrel Anna Fang, but they're shiny parts knocking around in a dated, rickety vehicle.

That doesn't mean that, in all its weathered and rapid glory, Mortal Engines isn't attractive. Naturally, the legendary WETA Workship throws down the gauntlet for this adaptation that Peter Jackson has been waiting to realize for over a decade: enormous mechanical cities full of steam, gears, and citizens do battle in a dazzling early fusion of CG effects and set design; mythical flying ships effortlessly glide through the sky in convincing digital gusts; a green-eyed mechanical golem slowly yet menacingly stomps forward and interacts with humans. From a technical and aesthetic standpoint, this team has constructed a marvel that keeps the eyes engaged with both intricate production design and digital wizardry from start to finish, and, as previously mentioned, it doesn't waste any time in getting the heroes from place to place in as stimulating of ways as possible. Whether it taps into the premise's potential or not is another story, as the initial brawl between cities -- celebrated in the trailers -- ends up being one of very few scenes like this in the film, while WETA gets overly confident in the immersive threshold of their fully digital effects.

Despite the technical achievements, Mortal Engines continues to suffer from trying too hard to establish itself as "the" new franchise to fill the void left by the absence of The Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings, instead of concentrating on making sure that this entry's a fine-tuned machine on its own. Themes of sacrifice, cooperation, and whether the ends justify the means hit expected notes in an appropriately explosive and objectively tense finale, which certainly sets the stage for several sequel adaptations of Philip Reeve's novels to follow. Nothing's surprising in the ending, though, outside of how brazenly this filmed version of the story copies -- quite specifically -- from another franchise in the tone and machinations of a key reveal, which seems like an inconsequential addendum here. Mortal Engines ends up feeling like a hurried diversion instead of another captivating transportation to another world from Peter Jackson and company, one that's preoccupied with the years to come instead of what it should be seizing here and now. Going by this, there may not be another adventure in its future.

Though, an Anna Fang spinoff might just take flight ...

Video and Audio:

Mortal Engines never lacks for eye candy, that's for certain. From gristly steampunk compartments in cities and vehicles to expansive outdoor landscapes and magnificent skyships soaring through the air, the film's visual language shifts from coarse texture and shades to vibrant hues and delicateness, down to the soft green glow of elevated-reality eyes and the crimson depths of Hester's face wrap. Whether it's computer wizardry or practical splendor, Universal's 2.39:1 framed, 1080p AVC transfer beautifully captures both the vivacity and the muted, hazy, and dusty components of the post-apocalyptic realm, with its core strengths rooted in the potent contrast balance throughout. Whether it's in close-up shots on characters' faces or the broad digital shots of the moving city or an expansive armed wall, the depth of the image gets elevated by tremendous black levels, fluctuating from deep and rich to appropriately light and adaptive to darker scenes. Skin tones are ever-so-slightly muted at times based on the film's visual aesthetic, but the warmth responds to desired saturation quite well, balancing against the surrounding shades. Bright reds of the soaring skyship and deep blues of walls an garments are rich regardless, and clarity remains razor-sharp throughout, if a bit hazier during certain CG stretches.

It should come as no surprise that during most points in Mortal Engines, machinery can be heard clanking or churning either at a distance or right up on the focal characters, and that results in a near-constant engagement of the surround stage. The Dolby Atmos 7.1 track fills the space with those metallic and steamy effects, and both the delicateness and potency of it all maintains a sublime surround experience throughout. Of course, there's more to it than bells-‘n-whistles: substantial metal-on-metal collusions offer tight, piercing midrange clarity, while a range of sound effects from explosions to the hard thump of a human-machine hybrid's feet hitting the ground hit the lower-frequency channel with controlled, satisfying firmness. Dialogue exhibits razor-sharp clearness throughout, regardless of the surrounding atmosphere, while fluctuations in music and vigorous activity level only mildly interact with the core effects at the front and center of the stage, never drowning the potency out completely. Mortal Engines is a blockbuster, and Universal's audiovisual prowess gives it a shining treatment.

Special Features:

Leading off the extras, a Commentary With Christian Rivers delves into the nuts-‘n-bolts of creating Mortal Engines, from the cameras used and locations scouted to easter eggs planted in the film for fans of the book. Rivers conveys a lot of knowledge about the whole process, including some candidness about what was included via pickups and unveiling some filmmaking secrets on a big-budget film. He also engages the narrative's themes on a somewhat upper level, while also discussing how he tried to avoid certain clichés and repeated components. There are gaps of silence, Rivers does get into repeating what's onscreen in slightly different wording, and at a few points the director does sound a little disconnected from the commentary experience, but the information he offers throughout makes it worth following it through as background noise, if not a full screening experience.

The commentary flows into a series of brief featurettes, beginning with the End of the Ancients (3:13, 16x9 HD), an in-character rundown for a history museum about how the "ancients" (read: us) lived and used technology. Character Series (HD) blends interviews and behind-the-scenes shots covering the five primary characters -- Hester Shaw (4:41); Tom Natsworthy (4:13); Anna Fang (4:26); Thaddeus Valentine (3:29); and Shrike (4:53) which features Stephen Lang in his mo-cap gear -- while Welcome To London takes a similar path by elucidating points about creation of the mobile city, with Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan) as the guide: Building the Beast (5:08) covers general impressions of how to realize and design the city; Levels of London (5:19) tackles the "stratification" of society and its tiers; The Smallest Details (4:20) covers how they brought to life a ecosystem where things aren't mass-produced (both in-story and on-set); London Museum (5:19) chats about the production and relic creation of that particular set; and Medusa and St. Paul's (6:11), where they discuss creating the movie villain's semi-real world "fortress".

Rounding things out, In The Air (4:52, 16x9 HD) taps into the airborne cities and how they differ from the philosophies of the rumbling ground-based cities, filled with some pre-viz images and concept art that are awesome to behold,and Film New Zealand (3:52, 16x9 HD) touches on the mini-Hollywood nature of the city of Wellington, New Zealand and its all-inclusive, good-natured approach to filmmaking. All the featurettes take a youth-friendly approach in their exposition, keeping it light and surface-level, but the collage of behind-the-scenes footage and concept art make 'em enjoyable when the spoken content isn't doing it. The Blu-ray also arrives with a standard DVD Copy of the film as Disc 2, as well as a Digital Copy slip.

Final Thoughts:

Mortal Engines really, really wants to be the next big Christmas-season franchise, and that desire seems to have gotten in the way of Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers delivering the most compelling cinematic adaptation of Phillip Reeve's popular story arc that they could. The grandness of the scope, the visual polish, and the pacing of the action are all designed to hold one's attention for the entire time onscreen, and it mostly succeeds in that regard, especially the initial battle between mobile cities and some of the air-integrated warfare. However, the depth of the characters and the nature of developments in the storyline itself are hindered by what seems like autopilot delivery of reused ideas and personalities, which doesn't do the craftsmanship of the action or the world itself any favors. Universal's Blu-ray looks and sounds phenomenal, and there's a nice collection of extras hallmarked by a commentary and a chain of 4-6 minutes featurettes that add up to a long runtime, but all that isn't enough to recommend the home-video experience beyond anything but a Rental.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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