Saturday, December 15, 2018

Mortal Engines

I can't really blame the theaters that cut down on how much they were going to show Mortal Engines on their top premium screens when Sony opted to release Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on those screens. I love Spider-Verse - it's one of the most visually exciting movies of the year, and I was actually trying to see it in 3D on the Assembly Row Imax screen Thursday night, only to have a hard time getting out of work in time to get there. Not that RealD the next day was bad at all...

Anyway, I'm not much for box-office stuff, but it doesn't take a lot of prognostication to tell that Mortal Engines is probably going to come and go pretty quickly, and there probably won't be a lot of room for it on the bigger/3D screens for very long with all that's coming out in the next few weeks. I can't really recommend this one strongly, but on the other hand - if it does sound like your sort of thing, see it now, when you can sit toward the front, edges of the screen roughly aligned with the edges of your vision, and let it be your whole world for a couple of hours. I regularly joke about people who go to the Imax screen and then sit back a ways, and am probably more generous to movies which splash crazy imagery up on screen that many, and I kind of wonder if those two impulses are related in both directions. I know I sit up front because I like movies with cool visuals, but do I wind up liking this sort of movie more because of how I watch it, compared to folks who sit back in what theaters tend to designate as the sweet spot or who watch screeners?

Mortal Engines

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2018 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

Though the work of everyone else involved in the movie, from writers to cast, should not be diminished, the best reason Mortal Engines exists is that WETA Workshop got to build a bunch of crazy steampunk material, whether on set, as miniatures, or digitally. Traditionally, critics are supposed to say that this sort of thing is supposed to be in service to the rest of the story, but WETA is arguably better at this sort of thing than anybody else in the world, so why not build a movie as a showcase for what they do really well? It's an approach that leads to terrific, larger-than-life images on screen, even if the rest of the movie often doesn't serve the effects team as well as they could.

Without a doubt, the greatest creation is London, which in the 32nd Century is a "Predator City", mounted on treads and voyaging across a ruined world, ingesting other cities and breaking them down to consume their resources. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) has been waiting for an opportunity like this, eager for the opportunity for revenge on Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who killed her archaeologist mother when Hester was eight years old. Unfortunately for her, young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) spots her dagger while trying to salvage pre-apocalyptic technology from the Bavarian mining city she arrived in, and both wind up falling off the city, watching it crawl away across the wasteland. That's not a great situation even without Thaddeus setting cyborg monster Shrike (Stephen Lang) after them and with a new ally in Anna Fang (Jihae Kim); back in London, Valentine's daughter Katherine (Leila George) starts to suspect that her father is hiding something about Tom's disappearance and the mysterious project going on in St. Paul's Cathedral.

This story is ridiculous, of course, but there are different types of preposterous that are more or less forgivable. For example, yes, the predator cities are absurd, but so what? They look delightful and more realistic versions might not be worth a $20 movie ticket. And while they may be impossible bits of engineering, there is something fiercely clever about London belching black smoke and crawling across the world, trying to take the resources of India and China (which are a little bit more prepared this time). What doesn't work is how the film is by and large stitched together by coincidence rather than Hester, Tom, and the rest actually doing much of anything until the end, with characters appearing and vanishing completely as needed, and things moving fast enough that it's easy to miss how a character's destruction comes about via a Rube Goldberg series of events that he starts, burying the hubris of it.

Full review at EFC.

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