Universal is going to try again this week to launch another young adult science fiction franchise, hoping that the involvement of a big name behind the scenes talent will turn around some recent weakness in that genre. Mortal Engines is, like other movies, based on a series of books and the studio is hoping some of that popularity will translate over to the big screen.
Directed by Christian Rivers and produced by Peter Jackson and his other Lord of the Rings collaborators, the story is focused on Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmer), a young woman living in a post-apocalyptic world where major cities are mobile, constantly on the move to avoid threats from other moving metropolises. Hester is on the run from London, headed by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). He’s threatened by Hester’s presence because of his connection with her mother and her potential to bring his position of power crashing down around him.
Hester stares out at the audience from behind the mask covering her nose and mouth on the first poster, looking intently and full of purpose. That’s reinforced by the copy telling us “Some scars never heal.” The real value proposition is at the top, though where we’re reminded this comes from the director of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
A series of posters showed the four main characters, each standing in front of a background that’s appropriate to their home or particular story arc.
The next one shows a more full view of Hester with the mask drawn over her face, but in a more artistic manner than the photo that’s featured on the first one-sheet.
On the IMAX one-sheet, Hester stands defiantly and with gun in hand in front of a giant tire tread, nicely representing the moving cities that are integral to the story. An even more intense close up of Hester, the city of London visible in the reflection of her eye, is used on the Real3D poster.
A huge tractor-type vehicle rumbles across a barren landscape as the first teaser trailer opens, though we soon see it’s not nearly as big as the even more massive one that’s pursuing it. The second vehicle, shot from the top-down, has classic-looking buildings and parks with lush greenery. “That…is London” Hester explains to someone else on the tractor town as London shoots harpoons into the smaller town and pulls it inside.
I have no idea what’s happening but I want to see more immediately. This is a great tease that shows the very basics of the story but offers nothing more, building a sense of anticipation by establishing that this is a very different world we’re about to encounter and promising more to come.
More of the story of the world came in the second trailer, which explains that the world ended suddenly, resulting in the creation of “predator cities” that are always on the move and constantly gobbling up smaller, slower neighborhoods. After her village is captured by London, Hester seeks revenge against the man who murdered her mother but is stopped by Tom. Both are cast out by Valentine but rescued by Anna Fang, who wants to channel Hester’s anger to stop Valentine before he can unleash a new and powerful weapon that would make London unstoppable.
Another trailer debuted at New York Comic-Con that offers a bit more backstory into the connection between Hester and Valentine. There are still lots of giant, rolling cities and big, outsized action, but it’s also a more personal story being told here. We’re reminded over and over again by various characters how special and rare Hester is and how she’s the best hope in bringing down Valentine and stopping his reign of terror.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website offers, under the menu in the top right, all three trailers, a photo gallery and a story synopsis. On the splash page there are a number of prompts, the first of which encourages visitors to explore the world of the movie, which takes you into a timeline of major events that have lead to the establishing of mobile cities and desperate populations.
You can go deeper by taking a citizenship test to become part of the London citizenry and exploring the London Museum’s Hall of Ancient Technology, showing artifacts from before the wars that decimated the world. That museum is also the subject of a 360-degree video allowing you to look around all the objects found there.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Of course since the movie is based on a book property as it is there was a major initiative by Scholastic to release new material tying into the film.
Short videos were used as pre-roll spots on YouTube while the trailers were used for promoted posts on social media and the key art as online ads elsewhere on the web.
Universal didn’t share any TV spots on its own YouTube channel but there were some that hit different aspects of the story, though all got the same point across.
Media and Publicity
A bit of footage along with a video message from Jackson were part of Universal’s presentation at CinemaCon, assuring exhibitors that the movie really was happening and would be coming out soon. The movie was also part of the later CineEurope presentation from the studio.
To help introduce general audiences to the world of the movie and to make sure everyone was aware of Jackson’s involvement, a “Look Inside” video featurette was released in late June including interviews with the director and members of the cast talking about the scale and scope of the story.
Featurettes introducing the audience to Hester Shaw, Tom Natsworthy, Anna Fang and Thaddeus Valentine were released in early October, just about the time Universal brought 25 minutes of the movie to audiences at New York Comic-Con.
The studio created a behind-the-scenes video series titled “Mortal Artists” that focused on the artists and designers that brought the world of the movie to life. New episodes were released on YouTube and Facebook Watch.
Jackson was compelled to respond to criticism over how Hester’s facial wounds, more more prominent in the books, are displayed on-screen.
An “Extended Look” was the first real glimpse into how the world portrayed in the movie came to be, offering an introduction that showed the wars and other cataclysmic events that lead to cities being rebuilt on the air, sea and land.
Another featurette from mid-November had Jackson and others introducing us to the idea of moving cities and the kinds of resources needed to keep them moving, as well as the social strata of the people who live there. A video from early December introduced us to Shrike, the terrible creature used by Valentine as a powerful enforcer.
Jackson spoke about his decision to not direct the movie but instead hand off those duties to Rivers, who has long worked with Jackson and who’s stepping up here for the first time.
The cast and crew also engaged in a number of online and social media Q&As and made a few appearances for interviews for online shows and video series.
The campaign unfortunately comes across as kind of a mashup of elements that don’t always fully come together. There’s so much time spent on establishing the world of the movie that Hester’s story is sometimes pushed to the backburner, but that means making the spectacle the focus instead of the story. The hope then is that audiences want to come out to IMAX and other screenings to see big visuals, which is why all the featurettes covered the look and feel of the movie.
What happens, though, is that it all becomes a bit muddled. The story isn’t clear enough to hook anyone based on the emotional nature of Hester’s conflict while the visuals may not be spectacular enough to work on their own as a value proposition for the audience.