Review: Mortal Engines (2018)

It’s a testament to how much I love going to the movies that I’ll basically see anything–and I mean anything–which is how I found myself sitting in a very plush Cinemark (the recliners had heaters!) bunkering down for a little over two hours to watch Mortal Engines. Co-written but not directed by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fame) and based on a series of young adult novels, Mortal Engines was poised to be the first in a franchise. Instead, the film bombed at the box office and with critics, making sequels unlikely.

The film follows a number of characters as they attempt to navigate a post-apocalyptic world where giant “traction cities” drive around the desecrated earth searching for smaller cities to  “eat” for resources. Post-apocalyptic London is the source of tension in this world, as its food supply has dwindled over time, imperiling its energy source. Sound complicated? Don’t worry, the film doesn’t spend much time dwelling on how “municipal darwinism” came to be, so just roll with it.

On New London, we find several of Mortal Engines‘ main characters, including its antagonist Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), his daughter Katherine (Leila George), and her friend, aspiring aviator Tom (Robert Sheehan). Our mysterious protagonist, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) soon enters the scene and whips up chaos with a stabbing.  After the first hour or so of the film, we get introduced to several other characters, including Anna Fang (Jihae), Captain Khora (Regé-Jean Page), and Shrike (Stephen Lang). Oh, I forgot Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery), Katherine’s horribly-highlighted, half-baked love interest who unexpectedly disappears during the last forty minutes of the film. There are several other characters thrown in for posterity, all but ensuring that what character development is attempted doesn’t really meet the mark.

I could spend time trying to untangle Mortal Engines‘ convoluted plot, but that would be a Herculean task. Instead, I’ll outline some of the film’s positives. Hester and Anna are pretty badass, and they get several cool fighting scenes, so it isn’t an action movie with a total dearth of female empowerment. Though Tom is clearly set up to be Hester’s love interest (in a manner fairly close to insta-love), the film doesn’t get too bogged down in it. And finally, though I am a huge opponent of CGI (I’ll get into this in another post), I can admit that Mortal Engines used it stunningly, bringing to life a difficult concept with relative success. Oh! And the characters who play a role in the film’s second half are all also pretty hot, if that interests you. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all the praise I can give.

The film’s negatives far outweigh its positives, starting with the fact that I genuinely felt that entire sections of the movie could’ve been cut out with very little impact on the plot.  Mortal Engines certainly forwent a boatload of character development and world-building in favor of sequences that did little to move the story forward, making its otherwise reasonable runtime feel bloated. Instead of creating a multi-dimensional villain with a complex backstory, the movie attributes Valentine’s motivations to a hunger for power and gives little further explanation. Combined with a tendency to be predictable, drop characters, and misjudge what its world’s most interesting aspects were, Mortal Engines did little to illustrate why viewers who haven’t read the books it’s based on should care about the future of its world. Even the film’s score, composed by one of my favorite musicians Junkie XL, felt lackluster. Finally, filmmakers (unsurprisingly) opted to completely change Hester’s facial scar, refusing to stay true to the novel’s description of its heavily scarred, one-eyed protagonist. While no film is obligated to remain completely loyal to its source material, Mortal Engines missed an opportunity to highlight a female character who wasn’t conventionally attractive.

Though Mortal Engines certainly has components that could have made it an interesting film, it ultimately failed to justify why it deserves a sequel. The ending was cheesy enough that my twelve-year-old cousin remarked on it, and she was likely the film’s target audience. If you’re in the mood for some post-apocalyptic destruction and mayhem, I’d recommend Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or Children of Men (2006) instead.

Gender Representation: ★★★☆☆

Diversity: ★★☆☆☆

Overall Quality: ★★☆☆☆

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