If the giant grosses for 2018 hits like Ocean’s 8 and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again didn’t persuade you, a just-released study confirmed what box-office watchers have already suspected: Female-led movies are steadily outpacing their male counterparts. It’s also not news to Peter Jackson, who has witnessed the appetite for female-driven studio features firsthand.
Jackson is the executive producer behind the post-apocalyptic blockbuster, Mortal Engines, directed by Christian Rivers, which opens in theaters today. Whenever the movie screened for test audiences, he noted that women were among its most vocal champions. “Some of the strongest reactions we get are from young women,” Jackson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “They’re expecting it to be some kind of boys’ action film, and then they suddenly realize it’s got these very strong female leads.”
Based on Philip Reeve’s YA series, Mortal Engines unfolds on a dystopic Earth where mobile versions of major cities roam the ruined landscape. Aboard the wheeled metropolis known as London, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) seeks revenge against Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the man who murdered her mother. When her initial stab at vengeance fails, she’s launched on an adventure that takes her from the land to the skies — where airships and an entire air cities defy gravity — with a less action-prone male sidekick (Robert Sheehan) in tow.
Jackson has made female-centric films before, including his breakthrough 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures and 2009’s The Lovely Bones. He and his longtime collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, also tried to increase the visibility of Middle-earth’s female citizens in their J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations; Miranda Otto’s Eowyn scores one of the most memorable kills in Return of the King, and the trio created Evangeline Lily’s Elvish warrior, Tauriel, to be a key part of the last two Hobbit movies. Still, it is notable that Hester is the first front-and-center action heroine in Jackson’s three-decades career, and that’s also the aspect of Mortal Engines that most excited him.
“A lot of times, these stories can take a male character and turn it into a female role, and that’s sort of a big twist, like a female James Bond,” the filmmaker explains. “One of the things I like about Hester is that she’s a character who couldn’t be male. She’s got multiple layers of complexity with the events of her childhood and her path to revenge. Piece by piece, she discovers a humanity she didn’t realize that she actually had. It’s a character I’ve never seen in a film before, in any way, shape or form.”
Walsh and Boyens echoed those thoughts when we spoke with them at New York Comic Con in October. “This isn’t a feminine character who’s on a hero’s journey,” Boyens said of Hester. “We’re not taking a woman and making her palatable for the male audience. She doesn’t ever go through some kind of beauty transformation — she’s always covered in grime and sweat. And when she fights, she fights to survive. Her story is her own story, and it’s not a traditional path you would give to a lead character.”
And Hester isn’t the only breakout female protagonist in Mortal Engines. Even before the release of the film, aerial freedom fighter Anna Fang (played by South Korean singing sensation Jihae) garnered a significant fan following. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm for new and different female heroes — which has elevated the grosses of movies ranging from Moana to Wonder Woman — hasn’t necessarily improved the box-office prospects for Mortal Engines. Domestically, the film is expected to finish behind competitors like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and its overseas numbers are similarly mixed.
If anything, Jackson wishes that the marketing campaign had made a point of emphasizing the biggest stars of Mortal Engines … and he doesn’t mean those giant cities on wheels. “The thing at the moment that I’m concerned about, to be honest with you, is that the marketing of the movie is feeling like a boys’ film,” he says. “Young women are coming out of the film who absolutely enjoy it, so I hope the marketing can swing around. Unfortunately, as soon as you talk about giant cities chasing each other and swallowing each other, it’s got a very boys’ feel to it.”
Mortal Engines is playing in theaters now.
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