Mortal Engines featurette

I sat down last night at the screening of Mortal Engines, and had just about no idea what to expect. Greeted only by a bland, vague tagline and a pair of glaring blue eyes staring out from the screen, I wondered, “What is this movie all about?” The bland, vague tagline should have been enough of a hint. What unfolded once the lights went down was a film so in search of an identity of its own that it simply scavenged from the remnants of other, far more accomplished genre and/or fantasy stories. There are flashes of a smart, sometimes quite sweetly emotional story here, but Mortal Engines is mostly inert and uninspired. It’s a particularly disappointing mix, considering that the screenwriters are none other than Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, who once brought the Lord of the Rings trilogy to life.

Based on the novel by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines begins long after the destruction of our own society. Civilization has been replaced by one in which large cities like London, known as Traction Cities, rove the countryside atop wheels. London is apparently not the only Traction City, but it’s the only one we see in the film, almost literally eating up other small cities for its fuel and resources. Laying in wait in one such gobbled-up city is the owner of those glaring blue eyes, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). “Hester Shaw”, by the way, is a name you’d better like hearing, because it ends up being said roughly, oh, four thousand times in the film. Hester has a vengeful bone to pick with one of London’s head honchos (Hugo Weaving), but her assassination attempt is foiled by young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan). Soon, however, both Tom and Hester are stuck outside of London, and smack dab in the middle of stopping a cataclysmic war between the Traction City and a band of rebels.

Perhaps I should appreciate that Mortal Engines, directed by Christian Rivers, is all too happy to call to mind, among others, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, the Mad Max franchise, Star Wars, and Pixar’s dystopian fable WALL-E. There are worse pieces of popular culture to be reminded of, but when the result of those reminiscences is realizing that any of them would be a vast improvement on Mortal Engines, that’s no good. For example, when Hester and Tom are on the outside, Tom learns that one of the remaining sources of food is a mysterious substance in plastic packaging called Twinkies. What a funny joke, the idea that all that’s left of modern mankind is Twinkies. Shame that WALL-E made that joke, and in far simpler fashion, over a decade ago. It’s stunning how much of Mortal Engines feels like cinematic leftovers, if only because of the writerly presence of Walsh, Boyens, and Jackson; they’ve obviously adapted other literary works, but did so previously in a way that felt exciting and fresh.

There is, to the credit of the film (or the novel, unread by me), one subplot that’s unexpected, though I couldn’t go quite as far as calling it fresh. Hester’s quest for revenge has spanned much of her young life; after losing her mother, she was raised by a mechanized corpse called Shrike (Stephen Lang), which looks…well, an awful lot like a Terminator reject. (You may wonder, “Why would a human girl be raised by a corpse?” Good question! I’m not sure either.) But the backstory of the father/child relationship between Hester and Shrike allows for genuine, earned emotion. Much of that is thanks to Lang’s performance, aided by a heavy dose of computer effects. But Shrike and its arc is a pleasant surprise.

The downside isn’t just that Shrike is a supporting character; it’s that the ostensible leads of the film have little to do that doesn’t feel heavily telegraphed or overdone. The allusions to Star Wars in terms of how Hester and Tom are developed are so egregious that, by the climactic battle that feels an awful lot like a mix of the climaxes of both the 1977 original and The Empire Strikes Back, you wonder if Lucasfilm should be listed in the credits. Hilmar and Sheehan may well be fine actors, but the characters of Hester and Tom are so ill-defined that they mostly just stand around while the supporting cast around them gets into various computer-effects-heavy battles or drags them from one place to another.

What must have compelled Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson to want to adapt Mortal Engines? It’s certainly possible that Reeve’s novel is vastly better than this adaptation. Even the direction felt slapdash and sloppy. (There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of moments when the dialogue being uttered on the soundtrack visibly does not match the movement of the actors’ mouths on screen.) Mortal Engines owes a debt it can’t possibly repay to other films that it quotes without sufficient citation; even its best subplot has the distinct sense of being a melange of other stories. I sat down to watch this film, in hopes of figuring out what it was all about. Having seen the thing, I’m still not sure.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.