The Failure of Mortal Engines Isn’t a Surprise

It seems that the movie industry was sort of 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 those things that movie studios love. The movie was a big action and special effects extravaganza. It was gonna be a franchise. There are 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 you should stop reading now. I have a theory that you probably won’t like. 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 worded comments 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 for those that don’t want to do the math.  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 first 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 the dilemma that their characters face, or 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 match 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 RingsKing 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 was always a children’s book, and consequently suffered as a result.

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.



Coco is a Horror Story

Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen Coco then why are you reading this blog post?

Note: This blog post discusses the belief system in the movie Coco. This is not a discussion or criticism of the actual Día de Muertos.

Remember when Pixar and Disney released Coco, that heart warming movie about honoring and remembering your family?

Remember how awesome it looked on screen with its amazing use of color? Remember how you cheered when Miguel realized that Hector was his great-great grandfather all along? And how you cried a little when Coco finally remembered Hector?

Remember how you sat at the back of the movie theater and realized that buried underneath this lovely family movie was a premise so disturbing it turned Coco into a horror story?

No? Oh wait, that was me.

My over analytical brain screamed at me that Pixar had inadvertently portrayed the Land of the Dead as a purgatory (at best). It definitely wasn’t a version of heaven.

Why? Because although the premise of the Land of the Dead, as setup by Pixar, seems straightforward and innocuous, it harbors some alarming implications.

First off, the Land of the Dead seems to use the following rules.

  1. When you die, you go to the Land of the Dead.
  2. To remain in the Land of the Dead you need to be remembered by someone in the Land of the Living. The Pixar setup specifically moves away from the concept of family remembering you, to being remembered by anyone at all (for example, fans).
  3. If no one remembers you, you ‘die’ a second time by disappearing.
  4. The longer you continue to be remembered in the Land of the Living, the better off your ‘lifestyle’ in the Land of the Dead. Ernesto de la Cruz, who continues to be worshiped as a musical legend, seems to be having a great time despite being dead.

In the movie we discover that the character of Ernesto stole all of his songs from another man. Hector was once Ernesto’s partner in a singing duo. When Hector tried to leave, Ernesto decided to murder Hector and steal his guitar and songs. As this is a Pixar movie, Ernesto’s skulduggery is revealed, and Hector is restored to his rightful place as the songs’ creator. He is now remembered, and can continue to ‘live’ in the Land of the Dead. Ernesto, presumably, slinks off into oblivion to eventually disappear.

Here’s the problem…  There appears to be no method or mechanism in the Land of the Dead to determine if you should be admitted or not. Osiris isn’t there weighing up the quality of souls before they enter nor is St. Peter, or any other type of eternal being. Ernesto is a straight out murderer and thief and he gets to keep living the sweet life even after he’s dead. Nothing happens to him. He would have continued having his excellent afterlife of fame and fortune if not for Miguel (that pesky kid). As long as Ernesto was remembered and revered, nothing happened to him.

At this stage, The Land of the Dead could be seen as a type of purgatory where everyone hangs out until they get sorted into other planes of existence. But there’s no sign of that ever happening in the movie. Your continued existence in the Land of the Dead is based on a popularity contest.

The more you’re remembered, the longer you stay, the better your lifestyle. That’s why Ernesto is having such a good time. He was famous down on Earth and his fame has carried over into the Land of the Dead. He only loses his place in the pecking order when Miguel (a living person) discovers the truth and remedies the situation.

Meanwhile, Hector is having an awful afterlife. Coco is the only living person who remembers Hector and her memory is fading. Hector is in dire straits and down on his luck. Hector may have been a dedicated family man in the Land of the Living, as well as a talented singer/songwriter, but the Land of the Dead doesn’t know and doesn’t care.

The Land of the Dead is as blind and unknowing as the Land of the Living. Whatever heinous acts someone committed in secret remains undiscovered even after they’re dead.  

And then the implications for this version of the Land of the Dead get worse. As discussed, the rule seems to be that your lifestyle in the Land of the Living gets translated into the Land of the Dead. The more popular you were while alive, the more likely you’ll remain ‘alive’ in the Land of the Dead, as long as someone remembers you. The richer you were when alive, the better your accommodation when dead. There’s one very big problem with this rule–there are plenty of people who have been truly horrendous and are remembered fondly by their followers.  There are plenty of very rich people in the Land of the Living who will be remembered long after they’re dead, even though they were terrible human beings.

Somewhere in Pixar’s version of the Land of the Dead, Hitler along with assorted serial killers and despots, is having a terrific time. And neither he, nor any of his evil friends are in any danger of disappearing any time soon.

And that is why Coco is a goddamned horror story.