Mortal Engines is a movie about giant cities on wheels that eat each other. It doesn’t get much higher concept than that. As bonkers as the premise is, the story that takes place in it is still familiar and derivative. The movie is at its best when it plows through plot points and immerses itself and its audience in the environment and imaginative visuals. When it slows down, usually for exposition or a flashback, Mortal Engines fails to justify itself
While many think this is a Peter Jackson film, it was actually directed by his protégé Christian Rivers. He demonstrates plenty of cinematic flair in his first feature, while also proving to be a more judicious editor than Jackson ever was. Mortal Engines is downright exciting when Rivers drops the clunky dialogue and story beats. The best sequences rely on kinetic, visual storytelling backed up by the movie’s notable score.
As an adaptation of the first in a popular YA novel series (by Philip Reeve), Mortal Engines offers several changes that are sure to infuriate hardcore fans. While that may be true, the script (by Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh) gracefully streamlines the events of the novel while also using it as a launching point for some expanded elements of world-building. Unfortunately, the writing falters when it comes to giving the actors any dialogue that rises above functional or adequate. Most of the elements of the script are purely in service of pushing the convoluted plot forward. It’s regrettable that this is the primary focus of the movie since it’s also the weakest element.
The story follows Hester (Hera Hilmar) and Tom (Robert Sheehan) an unlikely pair trying to survive together as the geopolitics of their bizarre post-apocalyptic world thrust them into various death-defying stunts and escapes. On the “traction city” London, Katherine (Leila George) and Bevis (Ronan Raftery) try to uncover the secret plot of Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a famous archaeologist with a checkered past and potentially sinister ambitions. Hester wants to kill him but is foiled by Tom, and together they encounter the agents of Shan Guo, a mysterious eastern land that rejects the violent world of cities eating each other. Among those agents is Anna Fang (Jihae), a character that is instantly iconic in spite of some typically cringe-inducing dialogue. All the while, they are being hunted by an immortal cyborg called Shrike (Stephen Lang). Shrike is scary and intriguing but again, the things that work about the character are mostly visual. That said, there’s an unexpected and perverse twist in Shrike’s motivations that briefly make the movie interesting in spite of itself.
Hester and Tom are often ping pong balls bouncing around the movie in service of the plot (Katherine and Bevis get it even worse), but it’s also worth pointing out that Hester actually has some depth. She’s a young woman trying to harden herself into performing monstrous acts in the name of revenge, caught between figures who are monsters by choice or not. Figuring out whether she has a choice is the main point of Hester’s characterization and it’s fairly satisfying even when it dips into some distractingly Star Wars-y territory.
Mortal Engines is not a very action-packed movie though its action is often pretty violent and reinforces the idea that these characters live in a grim, dangerous world. There’s some real darkness in there, everything from murder to slavery to cannibalism. As it’s ostensibly a movie for teens, these darker elements are kept mostly to the margins and smoothed down, much like Hester’s scars, one of those controversial changes that are a lot more dramatic in the book.
Since it is a very special effects-driven movie, many will appreciate Mortal Engines for its scale and detail. Every prop and costume is well thought out and lived-in, while the grandness of the world is captured in sweeping shots of funky airships and the traction cities traversing the land and sky. When the focus is on these elements, the movie is entertaining because it feels like the grand adventure in a crazy world that it’s trying to be. Viewers able to ignore the weak story, messy plot, and thin characters will have the most fun here.