The science fiction subgenre of steampunk has been around for quite some time, giving readers a Victorian speculative fictional world where anachronistic technologies, or retrofuturistic inventions, all exist in a historical setting. Possibly the counter-genre to this is dystopian fiction, which imagines a world in which oppressive societal control (and the illusion of a perfect society), are maintained through corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral, or totalitarian control, and this brings us to Mortal Engines, which is both a steampunk movie but also a dystopian young adult adventure story.
With young adult dystopian fiction becoming all the rage in the last decade — Hunger Games, Divergent and, The Maze Runner being prime examples — it’s not surprising that author Philip Reeve wouldn’t want a little piece of the YA money for himself, while also mixing it up a bit with a steampunk flavour to give it some spice, and thus his Mortal Engines Quartet was born.
A big fantasy series, one with cool visuals, a dastardly villain, and spunky heroes, must have looked to producer Peter Jackson as perfect elements for a new blockbuster series, and after the less-than-well-received Hobbit trilogy he must have thought that maybe Middle Earth was in need of a rest, so why not give steampunk/dystopia a shot? The film opens with your standard narration, where we learn that around a thousand years ago the world was practically destroyed during a conflict known as the Sixty Minute War, and now monstrous mobile “predator” cities roam the wastelands, hunting and absorbing smaller settlements, to feed their massive furnaces.
One of the key leaders of one of these predator cities is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a famous archeologist who has been hunting down old tech in the hopes of finding a better way to sustain the cities. As the character of Thaddeus is being played by Hugo Weaving most audiences will suspect he has some ulterior motive for his actions, and when he barely survives an assassination attempt by Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young woman seeking revenge for the murder of her mother, these suspicions are quickly confirmed.
Her assassination attempt is thwarted by salvager/historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), who’s loyal to London but by just hearing the accusation of murder he gets kicked off the Traction City by Thaddeus, and so Tom must team up with Hester if he hopes to survive the merciless terrain of the outlands. The story clearly wants us to believe that these two antagonistic individuals will eventually fall in love, but there is absolutely no screen chemistry between Hilmer and Sheehan to make this at all believable, nor are their characters even remotely compatible — her being a badass fighter and him a historian/salvager — and even if one were to site the “opposite attracts” cliché the film spends little to no time laying even the basis for a budding relationship. When Hester finally realizes she loves Tom, the moment is about as organic as if she’d just turned to the page in the script which said, “Hester recognizes her love for Tom” and then just accepts it. What makes this lukewarm romance even worse is that as the two flee across the outlands, dodging roving cities of nasty cannibals, they must also stay ahead of a creature called Shrike (Stephen Lang), a reanimated cyborg known as a “Stalker” who wants Hester dead for failing to uphold a promise.
Shrike is easily the most interesting element in this movie, aside from the predator cities which are undeniably cool, and when we learn of his and Hester’s complicated history it’s clear that a movie about these two would have been much more interesting, certainly more than anything we ever get with Tom Natsworthy, King of the Bland. Our heroes also encounter anti-traction rebel Anna Fang (Jihae), who belongs to a resistance group banding together against the moving cities that are devouring the Earth’s resources. She is a fierce fighter and an amazing pilot of one of the many cool airships that populate this movie — she’s kind of this film’s Han Solo — and once again we are introduced to a character who is easily more charismatic than good ole Tom, and if the movie had ended with Hester Shaw and Anna Fang flying off into the sunset together, we would have had a much better movie.
Now I don’t want to completely single out the character of Tom as being useless, bland and uninteresting — which sadly he is — because this story also saddles us with two even more useless characters to suffer through, in the form of Katherine Valentine (Leila George), the daughter of Thaddeus Valentine, who learns of her father’s evil plans, and Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery), an apprentice engineer whom Katherine befriends and enlists in the fight to thwart said evil plans. I’m sure in the book these two characters served some purpose, other than to suck dry my will to live during every moment of screen time that they shared, but any time the film cuts back to them it’s a jarring moment of, “Oh yeah, these guys are in this movie too, I’d briefly and blissfully forgotten that they existed.” I can’t think of a pair of characters as instantly forgettable as these two, certainly not in what was surely intended to be a major motion picture franchise.
On the plus side, this film does have astonishing visuals, as the designs of the predator cities are simply incredible to behold, and certainly more deserving of a better film. The film does its best to impart some of the world-building of the books — as much as the movie’s two-hour time constraint would allow — but as the film races from one location to another, introducing a variety of secondary characters, we slowly find ourselves quickly divested of any attachment to the events unfolding. This is not at all helped by the film’s final act becoming a Death Star run straight out of Star Wars, where the rebel ships must take out a series of gun turrets before the heroes can confront the villain. This all happens in what seemed like a sequence created simply so that it could be used as a level in the movie’s tie-in video game. Then there’s the moment where – I shit you not – the villain basically blurts out, “No, I am your father.”
The basic premise of Mortal Engines is not bad, and as mentioned the work that went into creating the various cities and landscapes is stellar, but with such bland leads and lazy plotting this film was never going to succeed, at least not enough to give Peter Jackson another bloated franchise to milk. Yet if one were to go into a viewing of this film with a forgiving eye, focusing on the actual interesting characters and not the supposed leads, there is some entertainment to be found in Mortal Engines, a film that is guilty of hinting at something better while delivering us another flavourless young adult action film.
Mortal Engines (2018) – Review
Movie Rank - 5/10
The craftsman behind Mortal Engines should be heralded for the visual effects in this film, which are really quite something – even if the Academy Awards completely snubbed them – but saddled with poor casting, clichéd writing surrounding a derivative plot, this movie was destined for failure.