The Failure of “Mortal Engines”

One of the latest box office bombs of 2018 is “Mortal Engines.” The movie is based on a science fiction novel about cites that move on giant wheels and dismantle other cities for resources. What makes “Mortal Engines” a failure is that it focuses too much on action and special effects while creating a thin story. If you read the book, the story makes sense but for movie-goers, the story seems too confusing to make any sense at all.

“Mortal Engines” is a perfect example of Hollywood trying to spend money in lieu of actually taking time to create a compelling story. The lesson for all screenwriter is that you can’t always take a popular book and turn it into a great movie. The second lesson is that science fiction is difficult to make as a movie because part of the story must explain what’s going on in the first place.

When we see a movie that takes place in the present or past, it’s easier to understand the basic world. When we see a science fiction movie like “Mortal Engines” or another bomb, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” we’re completely lost in a foreign world where nothing makes sense.  The way to avoid this problem is to focus on making a science fiction world that’s easy to recognize in our own world.

“Star Wars” was easy to understand because replace laser pistols with six-shooters and TIE fighters with fighter planes and the basic story still makes sense. We don’t need the story to explain the science fiction world because it’s essentially our own world but with more advanced technology. 

“Mortal Engines” fails this basic idea by giving us a world where moving cities attack and dismantle other cities. That works in a novel that has time to explain what’s going on, but in a movie, that makes it hard for audiences to understand what’s going on. As a result, the story gets diluted because the movie spends more time trying to explain what’s going on rather than telling us an interesting story. As a result, the story suffers.

“Mortal Engines” is proof that a popular novel and science fiction is no recipe for success. “The 5th Wave” was a great novel but a poor movie just like “Mortal Engines.” The problem always lies with a poor story. 

Watch “Star Wars” today and its special effects are blatantly obvious but the story itself is still interesting. Watch “Mortal Engines” and the special effects dazzle but the story is confusing and boring. Eliminate a story and all the money and special effects in the world can’t make a good movie. Hollywood learns this lesson time and time again after wasting millions of dollars each time chasing after a “sure thing” such as turning a science fiction novel into a movie.

For novice screenwriters, be wary of creating a science fiction screenplay unless it can be done inexpensively like “Moon,” which takes place inside a moon base, or doesn’t rely on exotic effects like “Star Wars.” Also keep in mind that science fiction is a tough sell to Hollywood in general unless it’s based on a popular book or has the backing of a trusted director (which is how George Lucas got “Star Wars” made, although he had to use his own money to complete it because studios didn’t think science fiction would sell). 

The general rule for novice screenwriters is to write screenplays that can be made inexpensively. This forces you to focus on creating a great story. The better your story, the better your screenplay, whether you have expensive special effects or not.

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