Based on Philip Reeve’s award winning post-apocalyptic steampunk series, Mortal Engines takes place in a world where cities now move across land on wheels, hunting each other for fuel and resources.
It follows Hester Shaw (Hera Hillary) and Londoner Tom (Robert Sheehan) when they are ejected from London after Hester attempts to kill the man who murdered her mother and gave Hester the scar across her face. Adapted by the same team who adapted Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh with Jackson’s protege Christian Rivers having his directing debut, the film seemed set to impress.
Since the first release of imagery the film has suffered backlash from fans of the books over the main character, Hester Shaw’s scar being toned down. In the book, Hester’s “mouth was wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer, her nose was a smashed stump and her single eye stared at him out of the wreckage, as grey and chill as a winter sea.” The scar in the film is disappointing and when it is revealed it’s almost comical, as the music and other characters reactions are clearly meant to enhance our shock. But it falls flat (as do most of the shock reveals and twists in the film).
Jackson’s explanation was more than a little disappointing telling a reporter:
In order to work as a love story, which the film is ultimately about, the storytellers want you to notice the scar less and less by the time the film is over. The make up artists, therefore, had to create a “delicate balance” as to what is most visually pleasing, while keeping the true essence of the film. You are empathising with Hester the character and the scar almost becomes invisible to your eyes. You want that journey for the audience, and if it was too strong, they won’t get to that point at the end.
Director Christian Rivers agrees,
Even though there’s been some criticism for what we’ve done, we know that if she was really hideous and ugly to look at, then a great deal of people who would go to see the film wouldn’t sympathise with her.
A ridiculous statement and one that counters the whole point of the love story in the book. There is a long and painful history between disfigurement and storytelling, one that Reeve’s books break from, showing a young woman who has a disfigurement being a hero and being loved. The film fails Hester and all those who loved her in the books.
For those who haven’t read the books, Jackson and Rivers also seem to hold the opinion that they don’t trust the audience to get that in the film without it being spelled out. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers focused on making Hester as visually appealing as possible rather than on crafting a well-written character. This is very evident in the script as it is jam-packed full of exposition.
The decision to prioritise a Hollywood standard of beauty over good storytelling continues through the film and will leave book fans and others disappointed. We are never given a moment to just sit with the characters, they are always either in a chase scene or explaining something to us and in a film with so many characters it means we connect with none. Because of this it’s hard to comment on the acting but all seemed to do the best with what they were given (though my favourite by far was Jihae as Anna Fang). It also meant that whenever there was a heartfelt moment or a shock twist they didn’t have any impact and often felt ridiculous with the heightened music they were set to.
I’ll be interested to see the deleted scenes as I’m sure there are many. The film runs just over two hours, shorter than I would’ve thought going in, and as a result it is seriously overcrowded with characters that don’t seem to serve a purpose at all and one in particular who just disappears at the end of the film. There are many characters that we are continuously brought back to throughout the film so seemingly we are meant to remember them but we never spend enough time with them to do so.
There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the things that are kept in from the books and what is removed. So much is explained to us yet we aren’t told or shown the intense class system that exists in London, so many scenes don’t make sense. There are forced jokes through the film that fall flat every time and don’t match the tone of the film at all.
If you’re going along for the visuals you won’t be disappointed. From the moment the film starts, the epicness of the world and the moving cities is front and centre. Unfortunately, this only further emphasises how the film is lacking in every other way. If the Mortal Engines books have a special place in your heart, you may want to steer clear.
– Lucy Noonan