What went wrong with Peter Jackson's Mortal Engines?

Mortal Engines is adapted from Philip Reeve’s young adult book series, which does not have the name clout of a Hunger Games or Twilight in the United States.
Mortal Engines is adapted from Philip Reeve’s young adult book series, which does not have the name clout of a Hunger Games or Twilight in the United States. PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES

LOS ANGELES • Every year brings at least one hugely budgeted movie that does not just sink at the box office, but positively plunges like a flightless turkey.

It is the kind of epic miscalculation that makes a studio re-evaluate its entire year.

For this year, Universal/Media Rights Capital's Mortal Engines has just weighed in as the biggest holiday bust - a monster of a miss.

Or, as Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock told Variety: "This is a true Christmas disaster and a lump of coal for Universal."

Mortal Engines, co-written by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, grossed US$7.5 million (S$10.3 million) in its domestic debut over the weekend, from more than 3,100 screens.

That only deepened the hole for the sci-fi fantasy spectacle, which has grossed US$34.8 million overseas on a reported US$100 million budget - meaning that the movie could lose more than US$100 million after marketing costs are factored in.

Universal had largely been buoyed this year by Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which grossed US$1.3 billion worldwide, and enjoyed good returns from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (US$394 million worldwide), The Grinch (US$373 million) and Fifty Shades Freed (US$371 million).

The common denominator among all those hit films, of course, is that they are the latest entries in existing franchises.

Yet with the woefully reviewed Mortal Engines (a 44 average score on Metacritic; 28 per cent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes), Universal was not only banking on launching a fresh franchise. The studio also seemed to be tempting fate with so many major decisions surrounding the movie.

First, there was the director.

Yes, Peter Jackson is attached to this project - and films he has directed, paced by his Tolkien-sprung stories, have grossed more than US$6 billion worldwide. His biggest directing hit for Universal, King Kong (2005), was 13 years ago.

But the man who helmed Mortal Engines is Christian Rivers, making his feature directing debut. As a veteran of Team Jackson, Rivers is better-known as an effects wizard and storyboard artist who shared a visual effects Oscar for King Kong.

Although it is laudable to give Rivers a shot in the chair, the studio also signed off on Mortal Engines having almost no stars (Hugo Weaving being one of its biggest international names) and just as limited recognition in terms of source material.

The film is adapted from Philip Reeve's young adult book series. Set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world (and published beginning more than a decade ago, when a steampunk trend was still ascendant), the Mortal Engines novels do not have the name clout of a Hunger Games or Twilight in the United States.

Then there is the film's story itself.

Mortal Engines centres on hulking metropoli on wheels - a "city-eat-city world" - yet the marketing on Rivers' movie did little to simplify the world-building tale for potential filmgoers, let alone offer a clear commercial hook to intrigue audiences.

The promotion was a misfire on the order of Disney's John Carter (2012), whose murky marketing doomed a decent movie (US$284-million worldwide gross on a US$250-million production budget).

Lastly, Universal brazenly slotted Mortal Engines against a highly anticipated animated entry in a mostly beloved franchise. Sony's Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse grossed a strong US$35.4 million in its domestic debut.

Even if Mortal Engines had managed a mediocre opening weekend in North America, it quickly would have a cinematic-universe behemoth like Aquaman and a franchise blockbuster like Bumblebee to face this week.

Perhaps Universal was hoping to grab whatever it could at the holiday box office.

But the biggest takeaway is that the studio sought to launch a new sci-fi epic - a tall order to begin with - with so many factors working against its favour that the project appeared doomed even before it debuted.

Another sci-film this year, Paramount's Annihilation, also sunk at the box office, but on "just" a US$40-million budget.

By comparison, given the massive financial backing of Mortal Engines, followed by the disastrous opening, Universal needs to closely survey the wreckage of the year's most spectacularly fallen kingdom.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2018, with the headline 'What went wrong with Peter Jackson's Mortal Engines?'. Print Edition | Subscribe