A strange Star Wars-Mad Max hybrid, Mortal Engines is a film adaption of the first book of Philip Reeve’s novel quartet of the same name. In a post-apocalyptic world devastated by the “Sixty Minute War,” London has become a “predator city”—a metropolis on wheels that runs down and consumes smaller mobile cities for resources.
It was evident from the first trailer released about six months ago that the studio had no idea how to sell its story to audiences, which is a shame because when one ignores the faulty science behind its premise, Mortal Engines offers an interesting addition to the steampunk genre. In fact, the film’s world-building is one of its only redeeming qualities.
The movie begins with a high-speed chase, with London capturing a smaller settlement that protagonist Hester Shaw—played, underwhelmingly, by newcomer Hera Hilmar—has managed to stow away on. Now within striking distance of Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the city’s head historian and the man who killed her mother, Hester attempts to assassinate Valentine, only to be foiled by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a historian’s apprentice. The plot thickens when Valentine ejects the duo from London into the “wastelands,” forming an uneasy alliance to stop Valentine, who has been accumulating “old tech” to create a super weapon that promises to wreak havoc on an already decrepit world.
Despite being set in the far future, Mortal Engines is a thematic relic of the past. The film might have seen more success earlier in the decade alongside movies like The Hunger Games (2012) and Divergent (2014), but the dystopian young adult genre has lost its luster, and market, in recent years. Compiling already limiting issues, Hester seems vapid and derivative when compared to genre-staples Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, who are already stock characters in their own right. Supporting actors Sheehan and Jihae (who plays Anna Fang, an airship pilot and leading “Anti-Tractionist”) are especially bland, lacking the charm needed to hold the audience’s support. The only actor who manages to hold his ground—and the whole of the film—is Weaving, but even he falls victim to flimsy dialogue and a bad characterization.
Mortal Engines attempts to show Hester’s compassionate side by revolving a subplot around Shrike (played by an unrecognizable Steven Lang), a semi-robotic “Stalker” (a resurrected soldier, in simplest terms) that spends the majority of the film preying on Hester on behalf of Valentine. The audience later learns that Shrike had found and raised her after she was left orphaned by Valentine, for which Hester promised to allow him turn her into a Stalker like himself. Shrike is able to free Hester of her promise after he is mortally wounded in a battle, realizing her love for Tom. The scene is clearly meant to draw sympathy, with flashbacks to him raising a young Hester constituting his final moments, but it falls flat—possibly due to the fact that the robot’s name sounds unsettlingly similar to “Shrek” but more likely because he’s treated as an afterthought. His presence serves no real purpose beyond raising the stakes.
Despite the critical acclaim of the bestselling novels, the franchise isn’t particularly well-known in the United States, and one-dimensional characters played by a predominately obscure cast and an exhausting two-hour run time—thanks to screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, veterans of Tolkien’s notoriously long adaptations—ensured that the film would be an epic flop.
One of the few aspects in which Mortal Engines triumphs is in its CGI and special effects, which blend seamlessly with the live action. For how ambitious its story is, the film delivers a product that is quite visually appealing. The mobile-cities, despite their ridiculousness, display a remarkable sense of industrial beauty and detail to intricacies. The costumes and landscape are as equally awe-inspiring, with the characters traipsing through rolling hills and high mountain-tops in dress that will please any steampunk lover, complete with waistcoats and top hats.
Mortal Engines clearly had aspirations for launching a franchise, but due to a vapid script and cast that failed to live up to its stunning visual effects, the future of the film has sputtered to a stop, and now joins the rest of 2018’s discarded hopefuls.
Featured Image by Universal Pictures