So I pretty much love the Mortal Engines books; have since I was a kid. They are a sorta class-conscious, post-apocalyptic version of steampunk that you don’t see too often. Steampunk as a genre often gets too trapped in the ‘Steam’ to really pay attention to the ‘Punk’. So much about the ascended Victorian bourgeoisie in his zepplin, not enough of the proletariat trying to bring them down.
Mortal Engines, and its sequels (though I cannot accurately speak for the spin off series) have tremendous empathy for the downtrodden and oppressed in their society. It’s heroes are a group of people or diverse races, genders, ages and physicalities. Though in spite of being a rather sexless enterprise it does portray it’s only two queer coded characters as villainous, sigh.
Further than that, it chose to display virtue as structural, or architectural aesthetic. If you’re feeling up to it, read the book’s description of the upper tier of the great traction city of London. It is full of these deliberate fascist signifiers. The juxtaposition of the ‘modernist’ cough cough Ministry of Engineering, besides the ‘classical’ cough cough St. Paul’s cathedral.
Compare that with the airship of the heroic Anna Fang, the Jenny Haniver, which is described as being constructed from spare parts. References to the controls labelled in a multitude of languages. The construct of London created by the author is one of stagnation and decay, the Jenny Haniver comes to represent freedom and progress.
Think about this, in the books the people who take to the sky aren’t the gentry but the traders. It’s this wonderful statement that encapsulates exactly what the series is about.
So when I heard that a film adaptation was going to be made under the helmsmanship of Peter Jackson, my initial reaction was: bad choice. I’ll admit I was always going to be resistant to any adaptation because ever since I got interested in movies I’ve been doodling my own storyboards for this joint. But even setting that aside, Jackson’s aesthetic taste has shown itself to be incompatible with the source material.
Anyway, now I’m not certain, but I think this was originally going to be a Peter Jackson joint. I know there’d been rumours for a long time before it was officially announced. It seems to have been passed off to his longstanding visual effects supervisor, and first time feature director (yikes) Christian Rivers.
Let’s take a look at this trailer.
Oh, holy shit, it’s bad. It’s ugly looking, dramatically inert and tonally confused. To give the filmmakers some credit, these are probably still temp shots (the film’s gotta year to go before release) and they’ve obviously been hacked to pieces by some trailer house to provide a minutes’ sizzle.
The thing which concerns me more is why almost all of these shots exist in the first place. When I say the Jackson aesthetic is wrong for the franchise (and this trailer totally plays within that realm) it’s because the primary mistake is being made. They are focusing on the Steam and not the Punk.
Think about the first chapter of Mortal Engines, the lead character Tom notices the start of the chase while working, sneaks off too late to get a good chance to see the action, gets into a fight while the chase occurs and finally is put into an elevator to go beneath deck as the town of Salthook is caught.
The narrative of all these books is intensely dialled down to the personal. For as grand as the opening sentence of the franchise is, the entire rest of the narration is delivered from the character’s eye level. They describe the sound of the engines, the vibration in the hull, the smell of the fumes, the actions of these mobile cities are irrelevant compared to the experiences of their inhabitants.
This problem has been evident since the first piece of concept art released for the film. See how in this image the individual holds primacy. The figure of Hester towers above London, gazing down at it, she appears as grand as the city itself. This image is completely at odds with the symbolic representation of the individual in the novels. The individual on their own is powerless, it is only through community that we are able to engage structural change.
The world that we see through the authorial eyes of the trailer is one completely at odds with this. The sequence cinematically denies the need for any sort of change. Firstly look at the representation of the chase. It is dynamic and (tries to be) thrilling. You are watching something fun and exciting. There’s that quote about all war films being pro-war films, because it is hard to entertain while interrogating the material.
Basically, I’m saying that this shouldn’t be fun. To resolve that we need to look at the second problem. The two scales of the sequence do not appear to be taking place in remotely the same world. I do not for a second believe that any of the human actors are on board the CGI vehicle we see.
This may be smoothed in compositing or editing, but none of the civilians we see appear to be acting with purpose. Where is the captain steering this land cruiser? Where are the hands below deck stoking the furnaces? Where’s the mechanic trying to stop everything from falling apart?
Why do in this sequence we focus on Hester? The entire thing is rendered dramatically inert as she doesn’t seem to care about the fate of this town. So by aligning us, the audience, with her the joint gives us noting to care about either.
I really do sincerely hope that this film is good. It would mean a lot to me if it were, even if that means making changes from the source material. But sadly, what I’ve seen so far has not given me much hope. Maybe the next trailer will be better…