Berating Mortal Engines for being just a silly fantasy is like criticising the Hobbit films for being a saga about little folk with large hairy feet. It is what it is: a dystopian steampunk story, pretty basic in plot with characters that follow the usual tropes. Where it scores, and it does so quite highly, is in its production values- fantastic production design, from sumptuously detailed sets and costumes to brilliantly realised visual effects, all coming together to depict a pretty breathtaking world. In 4K UHD, it looks really spectacular, the details fascinating and the HDR both adding a great sense of depth but also an added realism to those effects.
Unfortunately, it’s also quite true that such incredible visuals only exasperate the simplicity and predictability of its story- albeit such issues are possibly as much to do with the original source material (based on a series of books by author Philip Reeve) as anything the film-makers are guilty of. I think its quite possible that the huge expense of the intricate detail and care and conviction in its making (and of its visuals) works against the film, considering the narrative shortcomings – its something just as true of this years Alita: Battle Angel and 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: both were impressive visually and both were hampered by issues of plot, drama and characterisation. I think I actually preferred Mortal Engines of the three, and there’s obviously many other cinematic cousins that I could mention, like the live-action Ghost in the Shell. Its also far better than that Solo movie that tanked last year. It is evident that compared to the old days when the original Star Wars trilogy stood apart from most other genre films, these days all film-makers seem to have an incredible toy box to play with. What distinguishes them isn’t so much the execution now, as the quality of the story and narrative arcs, characterization, tension, drama etc., elements which modern blockbusters aren’t particularly famous for. Studios seem to be mired in a no-mans land of late, of creating big spectacular films for the biggest, commonest denominator, comfortably familiar stories that try to woo instead with bigger and more beautiful visuals- but so many are doing it now that those visuals just aren’t enough anymore.
Mind, the relative failure/struggles at the box office, of, say, Blade Runner 2049 which coupled big productions values and visuals with a thoughtful and actually rather complex plot seems to indicate that the mystery of what makes a successful film that isn’t a caped crusader caper is as confounding as ever.
So anyway, I really quite enjoyed Mortal Engines, and was pleasantly relieved to find that its a pretty much standalone adventure that doesn’t hint at better stories to follow or leave many threads hanging in the air to infuriate me on subsequent viewings. I’m certain as the book series it is based on numbers at least four books that I know of, that it was intended to serve as the launch of another franchise but thankfully such cynical thinking doesn’t seem to have impacted on the final result: the film ends with an ending, not a tease for something next.
And it really does look gorgeous on 4K UHD. I’ve read that the film was shot in 8K and finished in genuine 4K so isn’t the usual 2K upscale (not there’s much wrong with that, really, but you can see the difference here). Admittedly I come from the era of dodgy matte lines and fixed-camera compositing that plagued (which seems the wrong word, as ILMs work in the 1970s/1980s wowed us immeasurably back in the day) pre-computer imaging so all of this modern effects wizardry likely impresses me more than many and yes, seduces me into forgiving-mode somewhat. But in any case, the artistry involved in the intricate design work in this film, which harks back to stuff like Brazil and other Gilliam fantasies, which is great, is almost beyond eye-candy, it’s almost a piece of art in of itself. Its just gorgeous and quite bewitching. The sets are hypnotically fascinating, the visual effects mightily impressive- turn the sound down, run the film in the background, like a two-hour plus wallpaper, it’ll draw the eye and your attention just the same.
Of course, its frustrating that this film wasn’t some kind of dramatic, high-tension thrill ride with all sorts of twists and novel moments to confound and surprise. But it would seem the book/s aren’t either. Perhaps it was too faithful, I cannot say, as I haven’t read the book/s but as fantasy epics go, this was really quite enjoyable. Shame it flopped so badly really- I don’t miss the sequels that might have been but it seems ill reward for all the effort and artistry involved in putting this film together.