Mortal Engines, the story of a post-apocalyptic world where cities are on wheels, is finally here. Is it the next feather in cap of Peter Jackson's team? Find out in our review!
Predictable, Disinteresting Story Wrapped in a Fascinating World
When the world is ruptured by mankind’s greatest, most destructive weapon, countries resorted to changing their lifestyle to survive. Cities became mobile, with some sticking to land and others taking to the sky. In order to survive, bigger cities like London, absorb smaller towns and take their resources and people. When London absorbs a town holding a stowaway with revenge in her sights, it sets forth events that allows a devastating history to repeat itself.
While that synopsis sounds epic and amazing, Mortal Engines falls short of both adjectives. The film gives us a look into an incredibly fascinating new world, but the story that inhabits it just can’t compare.
It starts well enough with a really cool chase scene, as London attempts to take in the previously aforementioned city. It’s a great tone to kick off the film. The problem is, throughout this chase the film becomes mired with an unnecessary amount of exposition. It’s interesting to see how the inhabitants of London react while a chase is going on, and how it’s just a normal occurance for some who live there. Furthermore, once the chase ends the film continues its exposition-fest by explaining the fall of civilization in a manner that was extremely forced and unnatural. Once they finish with explaining nearly EVERYTHING, the film splits into two main storylines and both have significant problems.
The first storyline follows Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) on their journey to get back to London, after Shaw invades the grand city, at the beginning of the film and attempts to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). She eventually escapes after Tom pursues her through the bowels of the mobile city. Before her departure, she strangely tells Tom not to trust Valentine because he killed her mother. When Tom mentions this to Valentine, he pushes him off the edge, leaving Tom to join Shaw in the wilds of the strange foreign world.
This storyline is actually the most fascinating part of the film, as it gives us a playground to explore, with new characters and intriguing landmarks. The only problem is the affection felt between Tom and Shaw. It was just too formulaic and predictable for two characters that couldn’t be more opposite. There are never those moments that make you think, “Oh these two are going to be good for each other.”. Instead, it seemed to me like Tom had more chemistry with Valentine’s daughter and I kept wondering why Tom wasn’t trying to get back to her.
The second storyline focuses on Weaving’s character Valentine, of which I was extremely confused by. Obviously, Valentine is perceived as the villain of this story. There’s really no question about that. What’s strange, though, is the motivation behind his actions. We learn throughout the film that he’s trying to assemble the ancient tech that once destroyed the world, M.E.D.U.S.A. but never explains why. Later, he uses it to attack a certain civilization, that he previously mentioned like one or two times, but that’s about it. Add in the coincidental, unnatural revelations he receives and his story arc makes for a scattered, strange mess, which is a common theme throughout the film.
Uninspired Character Work and Unnecessary Characters and Cameo
Outside of the various plot holes and the poor writing, Mortal Engines also suffers from a variable who’s-who of unnecessary and forgettable characters. The main characters of Mortal Engines are obviously Shaw, Tom, and Valentine. They get the most screen time and a majority of the lines. We’ve covered the unnatural relationship forged between Shaw and Tom and Valentine’s scattered motivations, but it’s the rest of the cast that had me questioning the reason for them being there.
Early on, we are introduced to Katherine Valentine (Leila George), the daughter of the villain Thaddeus. From the way the movie began, it seemed as if she would be an integral part of the story. As previously stated, the chemistry between her and Tom was palpable and seemed like something we’d explore throughout the story. That never came to pass and she was forced to align with the begrudging worker, Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery), who also seemed like would have more of a part in the film, based on the open. Alas, neither really did.
It’s a shame too, because these two characters seemed like they would have an interesting part to play in the overall outcome of the movie, as Bevis witnessed her father turning on Tom. Their alignment looked like it would lead to an epic clash with Valentine’s father or them turning the people on her father. Instead, they just went to the cathedral, that apparently no one goes to, and saw the nefarious construction her father and his team had made. That’s about the end of that.
Mortal Engines is about 2 hours and 8 minutes long. It’s sad to say, but if they had taken out their arc and the unnecessary cameo by Philadelphia Eagles Defensive End Michael Bennett, it probably would’ve shaved about 10-20 minutes off the film, which would’ve been welcome.
What saves this middling cast of characters are two key characters, Shrike (Stephen Lang) and Anna Fang (Jihae). Out of everyone, including the main characters, these two were the best parts of Mortal Engines. Shrike is a robot, devoid of emotion, love or joy, that hunts for Shaw throughout the film. As you get to know Shrike, you find out why he’s after Shaw, which results in taking the enjoyment of this character to the next level. His motivations are simple and his resolution is emotional.
The other stand-out character is Jihae’s Anna Fang. Her character is known as terrorist in London. It’s unclear as to why she’s despised in London, but the thing they did make evidently clear is that she’s a stone-cold badass. From the way she fought an entire group of slavers to the amazing one-liners she produced, she was the action star we needed in this random film that was Mortal Engines.
Massive, Gorgeous CGI Worth Watching
To put it frankly, Mortal Engines simply isn’t a good film. The predictable, unnatural, and unconvincing story, mixed in with a poorly-directed cast, and an all-too-long runtime make it so. What doesn’t bring it down, though, is the incredible CGI and the team that built it.
In Mortal Engines, you’ve got cities on wheels and in the air, the scale of which have to be insanely big. As an added challenge, they had to take those cities and put them in motion, which couldn’t have been an easy feat. Any time these massive mechs were in motion, I kept darting my eyes around to see any faults or flaws. If there were any, I couldn’t find them, which is a testament to how incredible a job this team did.
If there is one saving grace for Mortal Engines, it’s in the CGI. They built a gorgeous world that I, as a movie-goer, want to explore more of. I want to see the rest of this world, but given the story they produced with this inaugural film, I have a feeling we won’t get that opportunity.
A Rent-worthy Picture
I’ve always hated it when studios use past work to try and sucker fans into seeing their film. Mortal Engines is just another example of this unfair rouse, as prior to the release of Mortal Engines, ads for the film have attempted to pull in fans of Peter Jackson’s work to see their latest epic, based on the book by Philip Reeve. Despite common belief, this is not a Peter Jackson-directed film, and it shows with its scattered storytelling and forgettable character work.
I advise that you not be swindled by the promise of Peter Jackson into spending loads of money to see Mortal Engines, because you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s an interesting world with phenomenal CGI, but it’s nowhere close to the masterpiece that was the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Based on the quality of story and characters, Mortal Engines isn’t one that’s a must-see in theaters. It’s one you can wait for to watch on Redbox or if it goes to a streaming service, but it’s not worth the loaded price to see it in theaters.