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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.
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