Universal's Mortal Engines sputtered out of fuel in its opening weekend at the box office, grossing a dismal $7.5 million that has it on track to lose more than $100 million. Directed by Christian Rivers and produced by Peter Jackson, Mortal Engines is based on the novel of the same name by Phillip Reeve, and is set in a steampunk future where settlements roam around on wheels, with big cities gobbling up smaller towns and villages and stripping them for resources.
Internationally Mortal Engines has performed slightly better, managing a total worldwide gross of $42.3 million, but even with a relatively modest budget of $110 million it's sure to fall short of turning a profit. Let's take a look at what went wrong with Mortal Engines, and why it's set to be one of this year's biggest box office bombs.
The Curse of YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi Adaptations
In the wake of The Hunger Games and Twilight's successes, Hollywood rushed to green light a slew of YA fantasy and sci-fi adaptations, hoping to find the next big thing. There were some smaler successes - Divergent and The Maze Runner among them - but it soon became clear that Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and even Bella Swan were going to be a tough act to follow. Beautiful Creatures, Ender's Game, The Fifth Wave, The Giver and many more all failed to launch, and so Mortal Engines was a risky bet from the very start.
Mortal Engines Had Little Hype and Poor Reviews
Mortal Engines might have been able to lift itself out of the mud if it had been an excellent movie with equally excellent trailers, but even before the mixed-to-negative reviews landed it an unimpressive 26% score on Rotten Tomatoes, there just weren't a lot of people who were excited for this film. The fanbase for the books isn't large enough to carry the box office by itself, and some fans were put off by the movie's changes - like softening Hester Shaw's gruesome scar from the books (a wound that robbed her of one of her eyes and her nose, and left her mouth permanently twisted) into a more delicate line that carefully avoids disrupting the prettiness of lead actress Hera Hilmar's face. As mentioned above, there have been many attempts to launch new YA franchises in recent years, and Mortal Engines' trailers just didn't stand out amongst the crowd.
Mortal Engines Had Stiff Box Office Competition
There's a time to make a bid for a four-quadrant audience with a blockbuster fantasy film, and that time is not on the same opening weekend as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. While Sony Pictures' animated adventure scored a fairly modest $35.4 million opening, it still managed to draw attention away from Mortal Engines with its rave reviews and positive word of mouth. Internationally, Mortal Engines faced competition from Warner Bros.' latest superhero blockbuster, Aquaman, which was already grossed more than $261 million ahead of its domestic release.
Ultimately, the deck was stacked against Mortal Engines from the start. In an era where superhero movies are occupying the majority of audiences' attention, it's harder than ever to get a new fantasy or sci-fi franchise off the ground. That's not to say that it's impossible, but Mortal Engines would have needed to deliver something exceptional - and it fell considerably short of that mark.