April 2021

Mortal Engines (2018)

DIRECTOR: Christian Rivers

CAST: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila George, Ronan Raftery, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang


“From the producers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy”—though it was actually directed by Christian Rivers, not Peter Jackson—comes the latest YA fantasy book-to-screen adaptation.  Mortal Engines is decidedly style over substance, but unlike Divergent, which was robbed of a cinematic final chapter and left hanging due to declining box office returns, it at least shows the good sense to tell a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end (there’s three more novels in Philip Reeves’ series), ensuring audiences will get a satisfactory stopping point in case no further films are forthcoming (a wise move, as a weak reception makes this a likely one-and-done).  A smorgasbord of CGI-heavy eye candy and pretty visuals only partially compensates for a generic and underdeveloped narrative, but Mortal Engines is still a fun and interestingly unique ride, even if a shallow rushed feel keeps it from ascending to true epic fantasy.

Sometime far into the future, after a brief nuclear war that wiped out the stationary cities of the past, mobile and heavily-armed “predator cities” now roam the countryside devouring smaller settlements in their path for their resources, “Municipal Darwinism” opposed by the Anti-Traction League, stationary cities hidden behind a great wall.  The greatest of the predator cities is London, presided over by Mayor Crome (Patrick Malahide) and its chief historian Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), whose fascination with ancient technology relating to weapons of mass destruction is more than academic.  One day, no sooner has London gobbled up a hapless small town than it is infiltrated by a mysterious masked would-be assassin, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who has a vendetta against Valentine.  The assassination attempt is thwarted by apprentice historian/archaeologist Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), but when he accidentally hears too much, Valentine kicks him to the curb as well, leaving Hester and Tom stranded in the wilderness and forced into an uneasy team-up evading slave traders and scavengers.  Ultimately, they join up with notorious Anti-Traction League agent Anna Fang (South Korean rock musician Jihae), and become embroiled in stopping Valentine from activating a superweapon to bring down the wall which would open London to new happy hunting grounds among the few remaining stationary cities.  And meanwhile, they are being pursued by Shrike (motion capture performance by Stephen Lang), an undead cyborg assassin with a connection to Hester’s past.

While there’s considerably more style than substance on display, there’s at least always something interesting to look at, with Shrike, the floating city in the clouds, and Anna Fang’s ship particularly striking.  Also, it’s nice to see full-on steampunk in a big-budget movie.  Were the script up to the same level, Mortal Engines might have been something really special.  The premise—entire cities rolling around on wheels eating small towns—is a little silly and doesn’t plausibly hold up to even cursory scrutiny, and there’s a little Star Wars seeping in at times, especially in the third act with the pseudo-rebel fleet making a bombing run on the pseudo-Death Star which is about to fire a superweapon at the pseudo-rebel base, and there’s even a “Luke, I am your father”-esque moment that lacks the same effect.  There’s also a heavy-handed anti-colonialism subtext, with a militaristic city with a huge Union Jack on the front storming a Great Wall of China stand-in to devour settlements which appear to be led by Asians and other ethnic minorities.  There’s also a corny/hokey Star Wars-esque quotient, and a love declaration doesn’t feel totally earned.  The overly frenetic pace shares some of the blame for this, as it hurls from one elaborate set piece to another (actually the opening chase might be the best action sequence in the movie). One could say first-time director Christian Rivers deserves credit for helming such a visually ambitious first outing, but Rivers is a protege of Peter Jackson, who’s certainly no stranger to such things.

For the two leads, the filmmakers went with relatively fresh faces.  Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan do decent, if not superlative jobs as the surly tough girl Hester, who slowly unspools her backstory as she lowers her guard, and the fumbling Tom.  They make a likable enough pair for us not to mind following them around, although the movie seems indecisive whether there’s just friendship or low-key budding romance developing here (if it’s meant to be the latter, it’s not well-established).  The best-known actor in the cast, Hugo Weaving (reunited with Peter Jackson from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies), feels a bit like he’s going through the motions.  The most striking characters are supporting ones, Jihae’s bad-ass Anna Fang, and Shrike (motion capture and voice provided by an unrecognizable Stephen Lang), who is both chillingly ominous and oddly poignant, albeit frustratingly underdeveloped.  Shrike is intriguing enough that I’d have liked for him to receive more focus; his subplot disappointingly wraps up just when it seems to really be getting going somewhere interesting. 

Much as it prides itself on telling us it’s from much of the same creative crew as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortal Engines is nowhere near the same level, at least not in substance if perhaps visually, but while it’s not a great movie—or even that good of one—it’s the kind of big, over-the-top, grandiose, visual feast epic fantasy I’d like to see Hollywood churn out more of.  Alas, tepid box office returns and a weak critical reception make it unlikely.  These engines are mere mortals, indeed.

* * 1/2