Movie Review: ‘Mortal Engines’ Starring Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan
Usually, when you see a movie trailer, you can tell pretty easily whether you’ll go into the movie optimistic and excited, or cautious and bracing for the worst. Admittedly, when I saw the early trailers for Mortal Engines, I was leaning towards the latter.
Still, there’s always that one movie that surprises you. Despite all preconceived notions, it blows you out of the water and ends up being one of your favorite movies.
This ain’t it, chief.
Look, I love science fiction. I like steampunk, too, so it’s not like I had serious inclinations against it based on the genre. I did my best to go into it with as open a mind as possible, but Mortal Engines suffers from trying to go in too many different directions all at once, it ends up getting stuck in the mud. It’s Mad Max meets Star Wars meets Terminator wrapped in a Bioshock: Infinite shell, but the end result feels like a knock-off version of those franchises.
Set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future (it doesn’t explicitly state the year, but it’s at least 1100 years from now), the world as we know it is barren wasteland, destroyed some time ago by superweapons. Much of civilization lives in mobile communities and towns, with the smaller towns dwarfed by mobile cities such as London. Requiring insane amounts of resources, the larger towns tend to hunt down smaller towns and absorb them like amoebas.
It’s in this process that the audience is introduced to the main characters. Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) is the head of the guild of librarians in London, and it’s evident from the beginning that he’s not exactly the nicest guy around. Charismatic and manipulative, he ostensibly works for the mayor of London, along with his daughter Katherine (Leila George), but it becomes clear rather quickly he’s subversive and bent on seeking power.
His efforts are nearly thwarted very early by Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who seeks revenge for her mother, whom she claims was murdered by Valentine. When another London resident (Robert Sheehan) inadvertently gets caught in the middle of the situation, Thaddeus dumps him off the city, and the film transitions to a bit of a cat and mouse tale as Valentine’s ultimate plan is revealed.
If there’s any aspect of the film that deserves universal praise, it’s the visuals. Aesthetically, Mortal Engines is one of the most beautiful films to come out this year. From the industrial steampunk of London and the grounded towns to the gorgeous visuals as the film moves to an airborne town reminiscent of Cloud City, it’s hard not to get caught up in the computer-generated scenery. Then again, I wouldn’t really expect anything less from a Peter Jackson-produced effort.
The problem comes when it’s time to look under the beauty of the surface. Based on the eponymous novel by Philip Reeve, the film diverges into multiple story lines that often hint at great potential but get absorbed in simple Hollywood cliches and generic dialogue. Midway through the film, a new antagonist is introduced in the form of Shrike, formerly a human who was reanimated as a cyborg whose sole purpose appears to be hunting down Hester. We’re given a glimpse of Shrike’s story (which really could be a movie on its own), but he unfortunately never gets fleshed out (so to speak) before the movie refocuses on the Shaw vs. Valentine story. The cast does what they can with the material they were given, which wasn’t much. Certain plot points require rather large jumps to conclusions, and too often characters (in particular Jihae’s Anna Fang) are reduced to gazing off in the distance, delivering one-liners that are quickly forgotten.
The biggest problem Engines has is the lack of identity. The film starts off as a steampunk adventure, but at some point it just becomes a clustered messy amalgam of other film and media franchises. It’s almost impossible not to watch the movie and get a sense of deja vu. I won’t spoil it, but the last five minutes had me rolling my eyes at how near-identical the film’s conclusion mirrored another movie franchise.
My guess is that this film was meant to be a springboard for a full franchise of movies, as there were three direct sequels written after Mortal Engines along with a series of prequels. It’s hard to see that happening, though; certainly not with the mess we got.
Mortal Engines gets a D+