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Mortal Engines Review: What Fools These Filmmakers Be

Mortal Engines Review

Mortal Engines Review: First time director Christian Rivers brings his visual history the forefront, but lacks a human touch.

Mortal Engines begins with a bang. Before the opening title card, audiences are given a brief explanation of the film’s reality, set 1,000 years after a devastating war cracked the world open and forced people to stay on the move. That led to the rise of mobile predator cities, roaming the world and hunting for smaller prey, kind of like an animated Monty Python skit.

Following the explanation of the new world, we see it in practice. A small town on wheels catches sight of the monstrous city of London as it bears down. In one of the most impressive VFX scenes from any movie this year, the two municipalities engage in a chase across a Europe dominated by tread marks and ravines.

Mortal Engines Review

It not only looks great, it’s well paced and exciting. First-time director Christian Rivers’ experience as a VFX supervisor are on display, and for a minute you can understand why Peter Jackson and the team behind the Lord of the Rings selected the unproven helmer. It’s a good enough scene that you can forget about the how impossibly dumb the idea of predatory cities that need to eat other cities to survive is, or how this style of civilization wouldn’t last more than a few years, let alone centuries. But it looks neat, so moving on.

As soon as the effects calm down and the story takes center stage, the problems begin.  

After London noms on the smaller town, a mysterious woman (you know she’s mysterious because she covers her face with a scarf) named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) tries to murder one of London’s prominent and seemingly most benevolent citizens, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). The attack is thwarted by the idealistic wannabe-hero Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), but for his troubles he gets chucked off of London and finds himself trying to survive in the wild.

Tom and Hester become unlikely allies, withTom providing the “golly-gee” wonder while Hester provides the requisite badassery. Both exist neatly within stereotypical boxes, and their arcs follow the exact trajectory you’d expect. Even the one unusual and remarkable feature about Hester – a massive scar across her face – just further expands the cliché.

Mortal Engines Review

As the duo stumble along, they are stalked by a bullet-proof Frankenstein’s monster named Shrike (Stephan Lang), a relic of the ancient world who kind of kidnapped Hester as a child and wants to kill her… but in a nice way. It’s weird and it could have told an interesting story about fatherhood, or gone deeper and explored how a sense of ownership over a person leads to disaster. But no, instead it leads to a painfully dumb resolution.

The characterization of Shrike is inconsistent, but he isn’t alone. Overall, the quality of acting is good, but wasted. Hilmar and Sheehan are fun to watch, and Weaving eats scenery, but the characters follow no real logic.

At one point, a character is presented with a very simple obstacle. Instead of taking one of the dozens of easier and faster options, they murder a ton of people and kind of just hope for the best, then the movie moves on and it’s never mentioned again. 

Mortal Engines Review

Meanwhile, as Hester and Tom accidentally set post-post-apocalyptic Europe on fire, London unveils its plan to use ancient technology to defeat an old enemy. To stop it, the so-cool-it-hurts Anna Fang (Jihae) sort of takes the duo under her wing. They all come together to stop London from… doing a thing. That’s not a spoiler warning, it’s just not particularly well explained. The book goes into more detail, but the movie just kind of mentions the reasoning and moves on, leaving you to wonder why you should care. That’s a question you’ll never answer.

By the way, if you’ve seen the Mortal Engines marketing, you inadvertently have come across the biggest problem with the film. The ads use the tagline “Join the rebellion,” but there is no rebellion. You need an established order to rebel against, and there isn’t one. There’s a kind of war between a city-state and a fort, but that isn’t rebellion. That might seem kind of pedantic, but it’s indicative of the whole movie.  

Mortal Engines is a very pretty movie, sometimes stunningly so. The rolling cities, the town in the clouds, the ancient wall – it is amazing to see on screen. The characters are all exceptionally stylish too. The end of the world apparently hasn’t stopped fashion from carrying on. There’s even a scene where one character stops doing something important in order to change coats. It’s meant to be symbolic, but it just plays like a poorly timed shopping trip.

Mortal Engines Review

The characters are also very pretty and well manicured, even the scarred Hester Shaw. In the books, her scar is described as grotesque and it affects how the world sees her and how she sees it. In the movie, however, it actually makes her look kind of cool and badass. But like everything else in the movie, behind the pretty is a whole lot of stupid.

One of the most obnoxious tricks in fiction is to move a plot along using coincidence. A movie can get away with it once or twice and be fine, but more than that and it’s a sign of a lazy, broken screenplay. Mortal Engine’s screenplay features coincidence after coincidence after coincidence – and not just lucky moments where a character happens upon another character just in time to save them (although the movie has those too), but major plot points are down to dumbluck.

Need an example? Imagine if Lord of the Rings didn’t mention the One Ring until the very end of the story. Then out of nowhere, Frodo is chased onto the base of Mount Doom, meets a Nazgûl who has a heart attack and drops the one ring, and then the hobbit just lazily chucks it into the fire. That’s not a far-fetched example either, it’s pretty close the plot of Mortal Engines.

Mortal Engines Review

There are also important scenes that seem to have been cut out. The prize for the most viciously edited characters is between two people, Valentine’s daughter Kate (Leila George) and her friend Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery). Kate’s entire story ends up being mostly pointless and comes down to a single moment that could easily have been handled by anyone else, while Bevis just disappears. Like, call in CSI: Movie to figure out what the hell happened to him. He’s there in one scene and then you neversee him again.

But at the heart of it all is Hester and Tom and their romance – and not just the trope-laden “pure boy saves damaged girl” relationship, but what it signifies. Mortal Engines offers an interesting and vibrant world, but it’s still basically a young adult story with delusions of grandeur. Phillip Reeve’s source book swam in that pool, but at least it had a coherent story.

Mortal Engines is a broken film. There are pieces missing, edits that don’t work properly, andstorylines that trip over themselves. And when something like that is held together by a YA romance that is simplistic even by YA standards, it’s a bad mix – and a bad movie.   

But at least the effects are amazing and there are plenty of ‘splosions.

Mortal Engines Review Conclusion

Mortal Engines Review

Mortal Engines looks amazing, creates an interesting world, and is also very dumb. The characters are inconsistent, the story is a mess, and any risk of the film exploring deeper issues is almost immediately forgotten. There is probably a longer cut of this film that might help with some of these problems, but that won’t solve the lazy storytelling.

The book is the first part of a quadrilogy, but if the quality of the first movie is any indication, it won’t need to worry about the next three. If it somehow does land a follow-up, maybe they can spend as much time with the script as they do dreaming up the VFX.

Mortal Engines is rated PG 13 with a running time of 128 minutes.

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Founder and DBP boss. Ryan likes the Kansas Jayhawks, long walks on the beach, and high fiving unsuspecting people.