Mortal Engines

Hera Hilmar in a scene from the movie Mortal Engines. (Universal Pictures)
Hera Hilmar in a scene from the movie Mortal Engines. (Universal Pictures)


In a distant future, Earth has been ravaged by man and nature as anything that massive shifts in the tectonic plates hadn’t done to destabilise the old-world order, man-made warfare certainly did. The world now consists of small pockets of Easterners who are able to maintain some of the past in hermetically sealed cities where peace and prosperity are matched by glorious natural landscapes and roaming, mobile cities that pillage the land of any resources left, both natural and man-made. When a young woman with a traumatic past tries to take down the chief engineer of a mobile London, events are set in motion that threatens to upset the already delicate balance of power in this small corner of the Earth.


Mortal Engines starts off with a scene of a mobile London, a small vestige of what was once the crown jewel of the British Empire sitting atop a mass of grinding gears and skyscraper-sized wheels, ploughing ceaselessly through the baron landscapes of what was once Europe in pursuit of a small, mobile outlaw town. It quickly becomes clear that this pursuit is a fairly common occurrence of this hulking metropolis wanting to assimilate the people and resources of those smaller, slower and weaker than they are. 

It’s a pretty obvious but very effective visual metaphor for globalization and as we are introduced to the half dozen or so key players in this drama, themes of capitalism, caste systems and a failure to learn from the past quickly join it in what looks to be a classically allegorical science fiction tale, that uses an imagined future to examine our present. This is, however, not really that film. 

I haven’t read the beloved source novel by Philip Reeve (the first of a quartet of novels, apparently) so I can’t really say whether this is the fault of the film or the novel but there’s a massive tonal shift that happens very early on in the film where, like one of its own mobile cities, it shifts gear with such force that you can all but hear its internal mechanisms screeching. 

For its first fifteen minutes or so, Mortal Engines looks set to be a dystopian tale – albeit a somewhat flippant dystopian tale – that picks up where something like the Hunger Games left off, as we examine our worst impulses gone wrong. In no time at all, however, we find ourselves leaving allegory and metaphor behind and diving head first into a frankly fairly ponderous and quite unengaging YA adventure film about a pair of literal outsiders trying to find their way home. It’s still fairly morose and the thing lumbers along as we wait for our fairly unengaging young leads (Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmer) to finally and inevitably fall in love and catch up with the film’s chief baddie (played with typical relish by Hugo Weaving) in a way that only the leads of a YA adaptation can do. 

So far so dire but somewhere around the halfway point of the film (though, with pacing this wonky, who really knows how much time had actually passed by then), something strange started to happen. The movie shifted gears once again – though somewhat more subtly this time – and this fairly morose YA-by-numbers flick perked up and became very, very silly and, would you know it, infinitely more enjoyable. 

I don’t know if it was when the film decides to have a baddie attempt to sell off our heroine in a (sex?) slave auction (as you do) but can’t make a cent off her because this demonstrably beautiful young woman has a couple of scars on her face that are no doubt invisible to anyone not standing nose-to-nose with her or when we have a scene of the same heroine and her hapless paramour-in-waiting having a romantic chat on the balcony of an aircraft flying way above the clouds that something finally clicked. This wasn’t the wasted smart-sci-fi opportunity that I thought it was at the very start of the film, nor the generic, dystopian sub-Hunger-Games pabulum that it seemed to become shortly after that. Nope, Mortal Engines turned out to be nothing less than a massively ridiculous, gloriously-stupid steampunk version of Star Wars. 

Everything from the lack of believability to the hilariously crap dialogue to very familiar major character arcs, set pieces and wooden acting comes straight out of the Prequels-era George Lucas playbook. It has very little of the stuff that makes Star Wars, at its best, truly great, to be sure, but once you take it for what it is, most of its weaknesses weirdly become strengths. You start laughing at dialogue that you once cringed at; start going along with a romance that you first rolled your eyes at, even become involved in the story of these paper-thin characters. By the time you reach the assault on the Death Star – I mean, um, the non-assault on the non-Death-Star, am I right, lawyers? - it’s hard to not be entirely swept up in whatever nonsense is happening on screen. You can almost even forgive the film for its clearly extraneous “third lead” that spent most of the film just, you know, being there. 

All that said, though, this isn’t quite a case of “so bad its good” because, picking up from Peter Jackson’s adventures on Middle Earth (Jackson gave over the directorial reins to his protege, Christian Rivers, but he stayed aboard as co-writer and producer), Mortal Engines is a gorgeously designed and beautifully shot piece of sci-fi/ fantasy. No matter how bad (at worst) or laughable (at best) the film gets, it’s impossible not to marvel at the way the film looks and sounds. It’s the sort of film that, in an age where more and more new releases are going straight to Netflix, absolutely demands to be seen at the cinema and on the biggest and best screen possible. 

Too bad for it, then, that it’s being released against some really tough, blockbuster competition this festive season. I may have gotten a kick out of Mortal Engines in the end but there is no way on even future earth that I could possibly recommend this as the new release to check out this weekend. Not for all the Spider-Ham in the world...

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