The Failure of Mortal Engines Isn’t a Surprise
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
It seems that the movie industry was surprised by the failure of Mortal Engines. The film was directed by Christian Rivers. The screenplay was by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Philip Reeve. Mortal Engines had all of the things that movie studios love. The movie was an action and special effects extravaganza. It was gonna be a franchise. There were cities on wheels cannibalizing other cities. And Peter Jackson was involved. And Fran Walsh. And Philippa Boyens.
Come on, people, it had hit written all over it!
Or, did it?
If you’re a fan of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh or Phillipa Boyens, please stop reading. I have a theory that you probably won’t like what I've written. If you stop reading, you’ll be saved from a great deal of indignation and outrage and it will also take away the temptation to send me sternly emails about how you are indignant and outraged.
For everyone else, here’s my theory. The failure of Mortal Engines shouldn’t be surprising because Fran Walsh hasn’t written an original screenplay since The Frighteners. Which was released in 1996. That’s twenty-three years ago. Phillipa Boyens has never written an original screenplay. Between the two of them they have produced an endless succession of adapted screenplays. That is, the story existed as a novel (or in the case of King Kong, as another film), which Walsh and Boyens adapted for the screen.
With each adaptation Walsh and Boyens have moved further away from a compelling narrative, and concentrated more on special effects spectaculars that show off the skills of WETA. The lack of original screenplay writing means that they’re always taking someone else’s ideas and characters and then mushing them around until the idea and characters matches Walsh and Boyens version of what a movie should look like.
From 2001 to 2003, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens struck gold with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, winning an Academy Award for their adaptation of Return of the King. Personally, I’d argue that a writer would have to work very hard at making the Lord of the Rings suck. In other words, good material is nearly always going to shine through, even in the hands of writers ‘adapting’ the work for the screen.
However since then, their adaptations of novels (and King Kong) have been subject to the laws of diminishing returns. Their films tended to be overly long and increasingly devoid of compelling narrative and character arcs. The characters lacked nuance or an emotional core. Each film since The Lord of the Rings trilogy seemed to be a tiny bit worse. For example, riding on the success of The Lord of the Rings, King Kong did very well at the box office and with critics. But once more it was an adaptation of a previous work, essentially following the same plot line, only with a lot more padding and better effects. I still remember walking out of King Kong without having felt much of anything for the characters, except for the sequence on the ice covered pond between Ann Darrow and Kong. That was a truly beautiful scene that lasted a few short minutes before we’re back to the running and screaming and explosions, and the climbing.
From there the cracks began to show with The Lovely Bones. A movie that veered between a strange sentimentality in a day glow version of the after life and a crime thriller. The book attracted some criticism for exactly the same thing but you would hope that experienced writers like Walsh and Boyens could have dug into the core themes of the book and extracted a work that focused on how a family somehow carries on from such a tragedy in a more emotional and compelling way. The Hobbit seemed to suffer from the same fate. Lots of effects and a padded narrative that tries very hard to forget that The Hobbit is a children’s book.
Then along came Mortal Engines. A movie that’s a bloated special effects fantasy with a dull and confusing narrative, and even duller character arcs. The failure of Mortal Engines shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s always been coming. It’s just taken a while for everyone to realize that somewhere in the past two decades Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have developed a writing formula that involves taking the original work, shoveling in a ton of action and special effects, and as an after thought, reducing the characters to the standard tropes found in all terrible movies.
Oh, and here’s that King Kong ice skating scene for you, which is (IMHO) the best thing in the entire movie.