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Dissecting a Bomb: The Bewildering ‘Mortal Engines’

A big-budget movie about a dystopian future in which mobile cities devour each other? This risk somehow did not pan out at the box office, and may be one of the last cautionary tales of its kind.

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

It’s essential that I set the scene for Mortal Engines, considering not only its surprisingly convoluted dystopian story line, but also the fact almost nobody went to see the film in its debut weekend.

The opening set piece of Mortal Engines is an extension of the film’s first teaser—which laid out the movie’s general premise of “What if cities … moved?”—as the “predator city” of London is practicing “Municipal Darwinism.” That is a fancy way of saying the rule of law in this decrepit future is that big cities swallow small towns—literally—if they’re able to chase them down. It’s survival of the fittest, metropolis edition. We watch as a small mining settlement tries its best to evade London, heading toward a crevice that the giant city wouldn’t be able to squeeze through. Unfortunately, the jagged terrain isn’t doing the settlement any favors as it keeps losing momentum, and once London is close enough the city attaches its harpoons—a death blow. “PREPARE TO INGEST!” Hugo Weaving’s London leader Thaddeus Valentine shouts to his subordinates as—I can’t believe I’m typing this—London opens its mechanical maw and, indeed, ingests an entire town. Once London closes its, uh, mouth, the MORTAL ENGINES title flashes on the screen. In perhaps the wildest 15 minutes of a blockbuster movie this year, Mortal Engines evangelized me to all of its ridiculous glory.

While the rest of Mortal Engines fails to reach the highs of its lurid opening set piece, there are a lot of intriguing elements at play thanks to the film’s particularly strange world-building conceit, taken from the eponymous Philip Reeve novel that serves as its source material. You see, a cataclysmic event called the “Sixty Minute War” destroyed civilization as we know it, and the vestiges of old societies became mobile cities, which could “ingest” smaller communities and use their resources and fuel to keep chugging along in this dystopian landscape. Not all of humanity turned to inflated Mad Max cosplay, however: an “Anti-Traction League” was formed in what used to be Asia, protected by a giant border wall to ward off the chaos of the warring cities. Valentine’s nefarious plot revolves around gathering enough resources to build a nuclear-type device like one used in the Sixty Minute War that could destroy that giant wall. Meanwhile, the film’s protagonist, Hester Shaw (played by Hera Hilmar), plans to assassinate Valentine as revenge for killing her mother when Hester was a little girl, though she eventually gets pulled into the larger conflict between London and the Anti-Traction League and finds that a key revelation from her past could save everyone—as these stories usually go.

I could keep going—there’s also a subplot involving Hester and a Terminator-zombie-type thing called Shrike (played by an unrecognizable Stephen Lang), who helped raise her after her mother died. There are cameos by the Minions—yes, those Minions, courtesy of a museum in London that collects relics of the 21st century, but mostly because Illumination Entertainment is a subsidiary of Universal Pictures—and NFL player Michael Bennett (I guess he’s a steampunk enthusiast?). Mortal Engines is truly absurd in an endearingly strange way.

But the bewilderingly complex setup for Mortal Engines is a clear catalyst for the film becoming perhaps the single biggest box office bomb of the year. Per Variety, with a global haul of just $42 million off a production budget of $100 million—not to mention tens of millions spent promoting the film worldwide—it’s estimated that Mortal Engines could lose Universal upward of $100 million when all’s said and done, barring an especially strong showing in China, where the film doesn’t yet have a release date.

There’s a confluence of factors involved in a movie bombing this badly. It doesn’t help that Mortal Engines was dropped in the middle of a chaotic December schedule, competing against a Wreck-It Ralph sequel, a new Spider-Man movie, and, in a week’s time, the new Mary Poppins film, Aquaman, and the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee. That kind of competition is particularly daunting for a film based on fairly unfamiliar IP—the first Mortal Engines novel, the basis of the movie, was published in 2001—that needs to bridge the information gap. The easiest thing that could be inferred from the trailers was the “cities are moving now” conceit, which is certainly a fun idea, but evidently not enough to convince moviegoers to seek it out in droves over the well-reviewed familiarity and nostalgia derived from a character like Spider-Man.

Box office bombs are unavoidable in moviemaking; there’s always going to be a handful of big swings each year that fail the generate the hype to match their enormous production costs. Last year, it was projects like The Dark Tower, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and especially Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which struggled to such an extent that it was primarily responsible for its production company shuttering within a year. Like Valerian, itself based on a European comic that didn’t have a global mainstream appeal, Mortal Engines was perhaps always destined to be a flop. Nowadays, if a blockbuster isn’t a gritty reboot, a superhero film, or a new Star Wars project, it is increasingly difficult for that movie to be more than a sunk cost.

The best time for Mortal Engines to thrive would’ve been when the fantasy genre peaked around the time of the original Harry Potter franchise and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Jackson is a cowriter and executive producer for Mortal Engines.) There hasn’t been an heir apparent to the fantasy blockbuster—unless you count Game of Thrones’ game-changing popularity on HBO—since the last Harry Potter film came out in 2011, as superhero movies have completely taken over. There have certainly been enough attempts at launching fantasy franchises in the following years: The Golden Compass in 2007, YA dystopian fare like The Maze Runner and the Divergent series, and more recently the new Fantastic Beasts franchise, which has yet to recapture the original Harry Potter’s magic.

It doesn’t mean that fantasy as a blockbuster genre is doomed—again: look at Thrones—just that the projects haven’t been able to match the lofty ambitions and production costs. Indeed, while Mortal Engines’ traction cities and broader world-building is undeniably original, the worst thing about the movie is how transparently its narrative tries to imitate great material that came before it. There are the obvious Mad Max undertones to that opening city chase scene—the sequence is even scored by the same composer as Mad Max: Fury Road, Junkie XL—but also elements of The Matrix in certain characters’ aesthetics, and a derivative romantic subplot that all young adult–leaning dystopian fare seems to lean toward. One of the biggest “twists” in the film is taken directly from the original Star Wars trilogy, and almost uses the dialogue verbatim.

In other words: Mortal Engines is, at times, an absolute blast to watch, but its narrative pitfalls also make it clear that the world didn’t just commit blasphemy and allow the true successor to Lord of the Rings to bomb at the box office. There are enough entertaining moments in Mortal Engines to imagine it could gain a second life as a cult classic—I could watch that opening city chase scene at least two dozen more times on Blu-Ray—much like Valerian, a flawed but admirably ambitious space epic, should eventually find a larger, more appreciative audience. But perhaps this soft spot for flawed works like Mortal Engines and Valerian is symptomatic of a larger cinematic trend: They just don’t make blockbusters like these with much frequency anymore. If a few more expensive, unfamiliar projects bomb like these two have, such films may well go extinct. And if that happens, the film and others like it will be like the Minions were in Mortal Engines, relics of an earlier era in Hollywood.