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Blockbuster films based on dystopian young adult novels have enjoyed varying degrees of success over the years and they arrive with such regularity that it takes a lot to stand out. This past weekend, Mortal Engines, based on the novel by Philip Reeve, arrived in theaters, and on the surface it distinguished itself by having The Lord of the Rings' director Peter Jackson on board as producer and co-screenwriter. So did that pedigree translate to success on the screen?
Above all else, Mortal Engines does what any good opener to a potential franchise should do: it baits the hook for the continuing adventures just right, and gives you enough information about its world to want to see more. Here's hoping we do get to hear the rest of the story, as this engine has built up an impressive head of steam.
The world building seems to be a common thread in many of the reviews for Mortal Engines, and it seems that director Christian Rivers as well as Peter Jackson and Co. have created a fascinating and unique world. For IGN's Rafael Motamayor, that was enough to power this film to a positive review, despite the film's narrative weakness. As he explained:
This steampunk epic, which often feels like an over-sized Fury Road on steroids, has great world-building but an underwhelming story.
Indeed, despite all of the visual splendor that was no doubt painstakingly created onscreen, for many reviewers, that was just a beautiful exterior to what was ultimately a hollow film. Mortal Engines doesn't fire on all the cylinders it should have, as the Chicago Tribune's Katie Walsh lamented:
One just wishes the same level craft went into the characters and script. There's not a lot of stake in the outcomes of any of the characters, and the script is laden with clichéd old chestnuts that start to get as rusty as the crunchy engines.
While many found that the film was just your standard clichéd YA film in fancy new packaging, others found that its derivative nature did not diminish the sheer beauty, inventiveness and the flat out bonkers fun of Mortal Engines. The Wrap's William Bibbiani gushed about the film, comparing it to others that were not appreciated in their time:
It took time for Starship Troopers, Dark City and Speed Racer to earn credit for doing exactly what Mortal Engines is doing right now. It's an overpowering world of steampunk delights, almost Miyazakian in its presentation. It's hard to complain about a path being well-worn when all the sights will make your eyes pop.
One of the main critiques of Mortal Engines seems to be that in a fascinating world, the characters are dull, with little development and reason to invest in them. IndieWire's David Ehrlich laid out this problem in his review:
If not for the wooden dialogue --- and a cast of characters so forgettable that the actors should have been forced to wear name tags --- the hodgepodge storytelling might even seem intentional.
So it seems that there is a lot to like and a lot to dislike about Mortal Engines, but it is clearly bursting at the seams with ideas and story to tell, as Vox's Alissa Wilkinson made plain:
Mortal Engines is not just a movie; it is a lot of movie. It's filled to the point of overflowing with stories, challenges, mysteries, and spectacle --- some of which make for a more compelling film than others.
Ultimately, your opinion on Mortal Engines seems to hinge on whether or not you think its strengths overcome its weaknesses. With a 28% score on Rotten Tomatoes, most critics seem to believe that they do not. But with visual spectacle befitting a big screen presentation, those interested may find something to like in this movie.