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06/18/2019 10:00:37 •••

House Hunting

Mortal Engines has a premise that is inherently stupid, but I appreciate the film not worrying about that for one bit, proudly showing how ridiculous it can get in the first five minutes. We're quickly introduced to a sci-fi dystopia where entire cities are put on giant wheels, turning them into enormous cars that chase and destroy one another, in a kind of cross between Mad Max and Howl's Moving Castle. I enjoyed the novel back when I was a teenager, and had always wanted it to be turned into a movie. I doubt teenage maninahat would have liked this one.

The first big problem with this movie is exposition. This movie pours great gouts of the stuff all over you from start to finish. The book benefits from a narration that can explain its weird concepts at a natural pace, but the movie is so overfilled it has to rattle this crap off to you. Almost all the dialogue consists of characters sharing very specific details that will definitely come up again at some point. "Oh, evil super weapons from the past you say? And they can only be turned off this way, you say?" I wish the audience was given a bit more credit, we could figure this stuff out from visuals alone. It would also have helped let the story flow a lot more naturally.

That pacing is another issue. There's a climax with one of the major villains (think the terminator, but with more obnoxious screaming), long before the actual climax of the film, which has the effect of making a two hour movie feel like three. "This movie comes in two parts, right?" asks my wife, wondering how we're an hour and a half into a story that still has no apparent ending in sight. Peter Jackson might not have been the one directing this, but his tendency for excess bleeds through all the same.

The book is fond of subverting the tropes of teen fiction, so its a bit disappointing that the movie carefully strips out a lot of this out to tell a more generic story. Take our protagonist, Hester, whose horribly mutilated face made her an interesting counterpoint to the traditional cute heroine. The movie takes the gutless decision to transform this defining character trait into a stylised scar on one cheek. Bleh. The film preserves the spectacle but sacrifices important character work, producing a boring plot full of forgettable figures. The only memorable performance was by Hugo Weaving, who was rubbish. The film takes about four minutes to stop pretending he's the good guy, yet wastes the rest of the movie trying to make you feel sorry for him, even as he kills loads of innocent people in cold blood.

It's all just a bloody great mess, crammed with everything from stolen Star Wars visuals, to thoughtless references to modern politics; "migrants may be separated from your children temporarily" says a voice through a tannoy. Two hours later, the good guys are defending a giant wall built to keep the bad guys out. Which side of the issue does this film fall on? Who knows, it's a mess.

06/17/2019 00:00:00

I remember, after reading the book, that the best part was Grike (which was what they renamed him for the Amercian version for reasons I still don\'t understand), and that I wished there was more of him. Then, since I wasn\'t intrigued enough to actually read the other two/three books afterwards, I checked on the internet and was pleased that my opinion was universal enough they brought him back for the sequels.

Then, the movie came out and everyone said the best part was him, which tickled me pink. Also, I took great amusement from the fact that, allegedly, in-universe, Hester eventually sees a movie version of the first book, in which her disfigured face is turned into a little stylized scar, and she scoffs, and then the movie happened and I laughed at that in the trailer.

I am sorry that the failure of this film will probably hurt other, better movies like it, but frankly, the book, like American Gods, probably wasn\'t as good as your teenage self remembers it being, and the film just wasn\'t very good.

(The \"you\" in that sentence referring to a generalized, plural \"you,\" rather than you, a man in a hat, specifically, I suddenly realize I should clarify.)

06/17/2019 00:00:00

I read it about a year ago, and I would sum it up as a clumsily-written novel kept afloat by its compelling if silly premise and a dark tone that is sometimes atmospheric, and sometimes enjoyably bad. The main villain is indeed a big problem, he acts like a sociopath but then repents at the end for no clear reason.

The narrative very clearly wants us to side with the anti-tractioners, but never shows whether settling down is an option, or if it is, why they aren\'t doing it. It\'s set up as both sides having some basis, but then written with one side being wrong. The mayor setting out their grand plan just pushed the whole thing into self-parody. And the ending is pure Deus ex Machina.

But between the inventiveness and the genuine subversion of clichés, it didn\'t get tiring. I have read some other things by the author, and it seems he needs a good, simple premise and some dark drama to keep things interesting.

06/17/2019 00:00:00

I think the intent of the premise is that municipal Darwinism is supposed to stand in for various forms of social Darwinism, including capitalism, and the various traction cities clinging to it are representative of a fundamentally unsustainable way of life refusing to transition into a more modern one.

But, at a certain point, he gets a little wrapped up in the minutia of the metaphor rather than the point of it.

06/18/2019 00:00:00

The whole \"municipal Darwinism\" was one of the biggest weaknesses, really. Because the world is (inexplicably) Victorian-themed, but doesn\'t follow Victorian values. Social Darwinism and other forms of eugenics were a real phenomenon, but a minority one. Much more important was the various attempts to justify imperialism and how they changed, from defending trade routes and allies, to spreading the gospel, to civilising the natives. That they changed so much shows they were mostly a thin veneer, but they mattered; the slave trade relied on not bringing slaves to Britain itself and hiding how brutal slavery was from most Britons. Obvious wars of expansion like the Boer war always had some casus belli.

Whereas here, the predatory nature is on full display and everyone cheers for it. There are hints that worse things happen in the Gut that are kept hidden but it isn\'t explored at all. All this means that the protagonist is a strawman from the start and none of his reasoning makes sense to the reader.

It would have made a much better story if the city-eat-city reality was hidden to London\'s populace (and ideally, the reader) behind some propaganda overlay and we could see the protagonist tear through it.


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