Sunday, December 16, 2018

Mortal Engines and Liking What You Know Isn't Good

A small city being pursued by London in Mortal Engines

I have a strange habit of occasionally liking movies I know aren’t very good.  I have defended Jupiter Ascending.  I was one of about four people who liked The Dark Tower movie.  For reasons I don't entirely understand, I've watched all nine Hellraiser films.

I went into Mortal Engines with few expectations.  I knew Peter Jackson had something to do with it, it was based on a book I had never heard of, and from the trailer I knew it featured cool-looking giant cities on wheels in a post-apocalyptic world (seriously, go watch the trailer!).

While I can't say it was a good movie, I was entertained.  It was one of those movies I enjoyed a lot while I watching it, but I liked it less as the movie went on and as I thought more about it later.

I'm going to give some spoilers here, but the movie is fairly predictable, so I'm probably not actually spoiling anything.

From a purely objective point of view, the characters and the plot rest on a lot of tired tropes, especially of the YA dystopia variety.  Reticent young heroine (Hera Hilmar) who is "ugly" due to exceedingly minor cosmetic imperfection?  Check.  Dashing young hero (Robert Sheehan) from a different social background who falls in love with her?  Check.  Some sort of political rebellion partly led by teenagers?  Check.  Attempts to add diversity to the film (which is good!), but which still fall into some bad tropes (like having most of the people of color sacrifice themselves to save the white characters)?  Check.  A plot that relies on a hodgepodge of ideas that seem cool until you realize most of them are recycled?  Check.

For all these reasons and more, I know that Mortal Engines isn't a good movie by any reasonable objective cinematic criteria.  But I liked it, anyway.

A lot of it is the giant cities on wheels.  They look really cool, and the action sequences involving them, not to mention all the neat steampunk flying machines, are just fun to watch.  And there's a sky city, too!  Awesome!  I saw this in IMAX 3D, which I recommend if possible.

Part of what I liked, is that, as Molly Templeton said in her review, you occasionally catch a glimpse of the actually good movie this could have been.  I love the hints of the ancient people (i.e., us today) who ended civilization in something called "The 60 Minute War," but my science fiction nerdery wanted to hear more.  

If some of those cool-looking characters had been fleshed out just a bit more, maybe we would have cared about their struggles.  I especially loved Anna Fang (Jihae), who got fleshed out enough to know that she was an international criminal with a sweet flying machine, but that's about it.  I was thrilled to see Frankie Adams, who plays Bobbie the Martian Marine in The Expanse, but I don't think we ever learn her name or hear her speak.  I loved the Shrike (a cyborg who pursues the main character), but his story unravels into incoherence quickly at one point as if they suddenly decided to cut him out of the movie.

Mortal Engines feels like a series of films squeezed into one two-hour running time (I think it may be based on the whole series of four books, so that makes sense).  The world feels like it would be really cool if only we stopped long enough to learn something about it.  Still, maybe it's the hint of all this coolness that makes me like the movie more than it deserves.

Another reason: Hugo Weaving.  He's played everyone from Elrond to Agent Smith to Pricilla, Queen of the Desert.  And he's awesome here, too, as the main baddie.

You can easily enjoy Mortal Engines by reveling in all the giant machines and turning off your brain. But there is a deeper message about colonialism and capitalism.  Okay, it's not actually all that hard to find this theme.  You literally have London driving around and swallowing up other cities to steal their natural resources and absorb their populations -- all while patriotic citizens cheer from the balconies for the greater glory of London.  It's all a bit obvious really.

At a slightly deeper level, London has to continually move East in search of natural resources to keep its (literal) engine of progress going, gouging the Earth with cavernous tracks as it goes along.  Their quest to keep things going is literally crushing the planet (not to mention that everything seems to run on dirty Diesel engines).  And getting a bit more obvious again, they use some technology from the 22nd century (the very same tech that ended civilization), to fight for all this.  Will we silly humans never learn?

Another interesting thing: Tom (the dashing hero) starts off as a patriotic Londoner intrigued by the past, but whole-heartedly going along with leader Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving: as Gimli might say, "Never trust an elf!").  As Tom goes on, he comes to see the harm that his city's actions have caused to the rest of the world, actions in which he was personally complicit.

I'd like to think that Peter Jackson or someone involved in the film hoped the audience might turn around and look back at ourselves.  Especially for those of us in wealthy countries built on injustices (colonialism, genocide, slavery, etc.), what do we owe to the people we've hurt to get where we are? What do our machineries of "progress" do to our social and natural worlds?  What are the costs of our constant drive to gobble up more and more to create more and more to make more and more money for fewer and fewer people?

Maybe that it encourages these questions is part of why I like Mortal Engines more than I should.  

Also, here's another amusing thought: given the bad reviews and lackluster showing at the box office, Mortal Engines probably won't fuel any profit or a drive for sequels and prequels that swallow up smaller films ... can mediocre movies like Mortal Engines save us all from future Marvel-style juggernauts?

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