Mortal Engines is an adaptation of Phillip Reeves’ novel of same name, in it we thrust into a steampunk (with notable influences from the industrious Victorian times), post-apocalyptic world where cities now roam on wheels consuming lesser maneuvering societies for resources, a concept to which it calls Municipal Darwinism. The biggest and baddest city is London, where tech giant Thaddaeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) hopes to salvage the weaponry might of a bygone era to bring about an end to the Anti-Traction League, a bundle of freedom loving chaps who prefer having their cities in one place. Throughout the film we follow Tom (Robert Sheehan), an adventure hungry historian, and Hester (Hera Hilmar), a grizzled girl with a chip on her shoulder, as they seek to stop Valentine and the beastly city of London.
This film is the directorial debut of Christian Rivers, never heard of him? Well nor had I, in actuality I had believed that big Peter Jackson himself had directed Mortal Engines! It wasn’t until the end credits began their crawl in which I realised he had handed the reigns to Rivers, the likes of whom (after a quick Wikipedia search revealed) has effectively been working with Jackson from the get-go. Yet, this film has Jackson’s greasy finger-prints all over it, one can deduct this through noticing the casting of LOTR veterans like Hugo Weaving (the likes of whom delivered a very uninspired and unfortunately stale performance of the main antagonist) or the frustrating over-reliance on CGI. For as one of the primary scriptwriters and producers, this film obviously oozes Jackson.
Now, I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I absolutely love it, all three sit comfortably near the top of my personal list of favourite films. They are, and will always be, the apex of fantasy cinema…
Just because he delivered a truly great adaptation doesn’t excuse the quality of his subsequent work which, aside from They Shall not Grow Old and maybe King Kong (I’ll need to watch that again, I enjoyed as a kid but, well…I was a kid), has gradually degraded in a Shyamalan-esque manner. And whilst he ‘technically’ hadn’t directed Mortal Engines, we’d be fools to deny that he didn’t have an active role in the direction of this film. Also, he was effectively this film’s primary promotional material. The name ‘Peter Jackson’ gets asses in seats. Universal knew this, hence they yanked him from set, plopped him in front of a camera with a script reading “Oi, I directed that Lord of the Rings film, go watch my new one!”.
I don’t like Mortal Engines, but apparently, I was in a minority when I went to view this in the cinema. Upon the conclusion of this boring, drably acted dross about a third of the screen’s audience (to which was near filled to the brim) erupted in applause – to which my friend and I countered with confused facial contortions. I’ve seen several films worthy of applause this year (Black Klansman and Infinity War off the top of my head) but to see this tripe get an ovation boils my blood. Aside from the sincere lack of personality and the cheesy one-liners, this film had an originality problem. By the end I was keeping a mental tally of the amount of ‘Star Wars did it first’ moments I had seen, from the start, with (what I hope) an obvious homage to the opening sequence to A New Hope , to the end, where within the span of a few seconds we have a death-star trench run and a thinly veiled “Luke I am your father” moment. I mean, the last film I’ve seen with this many Star Wars copy-paste moments was Eragon, and that was literal dog-shit.
Yet, I found one of the primary issues to be with the characters. When you’re looking to make some epic scaled adventure journey, you’d be hard out of luck if you can’t conjure up likeable characters or, even more-so, if your cast are unlikeable and/or forgettable. Sheehan’s Tom was annoying and cliched, I believe you’re meant to see him as this naïve yet noble lad out of his depth in an unfamiliar world but all he comes across as is some petulant twat. Similarly, Hilmar’s Hester was drop-dead boring, I assume her character’s meant to be seen as some edgy and complicated badass, but all we see is some pouty and monotonous wet-wipe. Weaving, as previously mentioned, basically plays himself but worse (somehow), and none of the remaining cast were stand-out in any way. That Shrike (or ‘Shrek’, which was essentially what I heard him referred to as half the time) was kind of interesting, but alas he appears for around fifteen minute’s screen-time menacingly shouting “Hester Shore” before being killed off in some overly emotional sequence despite a lack of any form of emotional connection. And I think that’s one of this film’s overriding issues, you just don’t feel connected to it in any way. The characters are either cliched or boring and you’ve heard the story a thousand times before if you’ve watched or read any form of fantasy/science fiction. I think it’s one redeeming quality would be the soundtrack, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of Junkie XL before, but I’ll be doing a Spotify search promptly upon completion of this review. Alas, ‘Steampunk Star Wars’ really doesn’t do it for me, the visuals (whilst flashy and bombastic) really won’t hold up in a decade’s time and the story is monotonous and unoriginal.
2 out of 5