Mortal Engines is a futuristic steampunk adventure that can’t find its own feet. Directed by visual effects virtuoso Christian Rivers and co-written and produced by Peter Jackson, this project was on the top of my watchlist. Unfortunately, it won’t stay there to defend its title.
The theatrical version of this movie is undeniably the product of said duo, Rivers and Jackson, who have worked on (you know it) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings together. Visually, it is compelling and the production design has wonderful details to offer. And yet, Mortal Engines lacks worldbuilding at every corner. All their concepts appear to be borrowed from projects like BioShock and Snowpiercer. However, BioShock adds fascinating characters while Snowpiercer is a unique and poetic critical piece – Mortal Engines has neither going for it.
The plot is very simple and features your usual mad scientists and corrupted, power-hungry maniacs disguised as people-pleasing humanitarians. All of this is put against the backdrop of a ravaged world where survival is tough and resources are slim. Hera Hilmar plays Hester Shaw, a determined outsider on her revenge mission against Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) who is basically a steampunk Saruman. He also runs the city of London – one of the tractionist “predator cities” which can literally swallow other traveling cities. They even call the process “ingesting”. Yikes. How does that help anybody you might ask? Well, the triumphant city uses the captured folk as work forces and anything they possessed to fuel their engines.
Unfortunately, the characters are so stale and the dialogue is so basic – where is the heart that Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (also involved as writers) usually bring to their work? It’s a pity but the narration is a mess with uncomfortably placed exposition that leads you through the rare moments between action sequences, with minor success. This means highly predictable character developments and extremly rushed emotional bonding between them. I’ll add to that the flawed attempt to show a diverse body of earth’s future populations, and yet, every main character is white.
Robert Sheehan portrays the Londoner Tom Natsworthy and he is one of the good things in this movie. A lovable guy who couldn’t live up to his potential but steps up in times of need, quite pleasant. In this post-apocalyptic future he sort of works as our (or the ancient’s as they call the people who came before them) gateway to their past with impressive expertise in old technology such as toasters and the likes. Tom also gives us our first grasp of the class system – a concept that is implemented well enough but is exploited with stereotypical dynamics. There are conflicts between upper and lower classes but also tractionist and anti-tractionist parties. In other words: those who want to drive around eating other cities and those who prefer to remain stationary. Part of the latter group is Anna Fang aka Windflower (Jihae) who is the sexiest Santa-Trinity you have ever seen. Her coolness alone is worth the 2 hour runtime. But the problem of the movie’s unscalable imbalance is the act of pushing the story aside to let the “cool ideas” take the spotlight.
What makes matters tragic is that I’m sure the designs and ideas are outstanding and definitely incredibly time-consuming work, but we don’t get to see much of it. Most of the time we watch people running and machines slashing through other machines. And then there’s this absurdly annoying violin theme repeating over and over again just like the Tauriel and Legolas theme in The Hobbit trilogy. Do you ever just want to exterminate a violin rockstar-style?
But what I really enjoyed as a fan were familiar Jackson tropes such as:
- dark prologue with voice over
- introducing cities like a character
- the bad guy staring after the good guys and howling as a transition
All in all, I will say Mortal Engines is so basic it’s almost comical. The lack of effective consequences might be deliberately written into the story as to leave enough room for a continuation. Based on four books by Philip Reeve of the same name, we will probably get about 8-10 movies, right?