Published on December 10th, 2018 | by Curtis Mayfield
Mortal Engines – Film Review
Reviewed by Curtis Mayfield M-H on 8th of December 2018
Universal Pictures presents a film by Christian Rivers
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson
Produced by Zane Weiner, Amanda Walker, Deborah Forte, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan and Jihae
Music by Junkie XL
Cinematography: Simon Raby
Edited by Jonno Woodford-Robinson
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: the 6th of December 2018
Mortal Engines is the perfect title for a post-apocalyptic movie, which despite its potential, is dead on arrival. It is set one thousand years into the future after an undisclosed tragedy transformed the world as we know it into a steam punk’s wet dream. Analogue technology and kooky eye glasses have now become the norm.
The city of London is a giant hell machine on wheels that skirts its way around the wasteland of Europe with a big gaping mouth that devours smaller mobile cities for its resources. Maybe this kids’ movie is a metaphor for Brexit. The concept alone is cool enough to attract the young adult audience that made the book a bestseller. Alas, the movie follows a treacherous path that most adaptations fail to cross.
The plot is overblown and tries to fit every aspect of the narrative into a two-hour silver-screen journey. There are too many characters to focus on and way too much nerdy (I say that word with love) mumbo-jumbo. It turns this potential blockbuster into a glorified children’s show that somehow received a green light for feature length treatment.
Predictably, when you have ‘Mr. Epic’ himself, Peter Jackson, attached to a project you know it will be snatched up faster than the one ring to rule them all unsupervised in a room with Gollum.
Jackson has put down the reigns to this shaky unstable machine and let his long-time visual effects partner Christian Rivers make his directorial debut. It is unfortunate that Rivers has fumbled his first shot at directing since his work on Jackson’s films (including both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, and King Kong) has previously produced visually stunning collaborations.
Rivers’ ability to create beautiful worlds for the screen shines through with Mortal Engines. We are treated to some completely mesmerising, impossible worlds. The floating cities in the sky and the civilisations built into world protecting walls are completely hypnotising. It is unfortunate that Rivers mimics Michael Bay by blowing everything up before there is a chance to take a mental snapshot of what probably took the visual effects department a lifetime to create.
Now, onto the ’story’ if it can be called that. The movie wastes no time presenting CGI-heavy set pieces as the action starts a millisecond after the prologue. Robert Sheehan takes his handsome boy face into the role of Tom Natsworthy, a historian and collector of all things from the past. While his city gobbles up towns, he collects artefacts that are worth salvaging. Insert jokes about 2018 culture here with shots of Minions memorably being held as prized possessions.
Tom is so sweet natured that he doesn’t know that the evil and charismatic Thaddeus Valentine (bad guy connoisseur Hugo Weaving) he works for has world‑crushing plans of his own. Thaddeus is a soap-opera level villain and played by an actor who should be well above these kinds of roles by now.
Thaddeus figuratively twirls his moustache as he runs the now mobile London with an iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove. He ruthlessly swallows smaller cities while his followers cheer on. One ’surprise‘ twist later and Tom is out on his arse along with Emily Blunt-lite Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). She is a mysterious and underwritten badass with a plan for murderous vengeance against Thaddeus and a pretty intense facial scar to match.
Once the odd couple pairing of the idealistic and naïve Tom and the jaded Hester is forged, it is obvious where their collective journey will take them both psychically and emotionally. Parents should feel free to sit back and fall into a cinema seat nap because from this point onwards, only the kids will appreciate the story.
Screenwriters Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who successfully created interesting and balanced character stories for The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, have crammed too many characters and motivations into one messy plot.
The overabundance makes it insulting to ask for an audience’s complete attention during this two-hour. Though let’s be grateful that this movie did not go down the usual path of a Jackson epic that lasts three plus hours.
While over-stuffed, the lead roles are still thinly written. This includes Katherine Valentine (Leila George) who is an Ivanka Trump lookalike and the daughter of Thaddeus. She is unaware of her father’s obvious immoral intentions, which makes her akin to Trump’s daughter. Although in this movie, the villain wants to knock down border walls not build them.
After the onslaught of characters, our attention is thinly spread. Without assistance from the film’s IMDB page, it is impossible to remember who they all are. A small glimmer of hope for sympathetic characters is short-lived and outweighed by the film’s ongoing mediocrity.
Singer Jihae slips in nicely to the role of Anna Fang, a gun-wielding badass in a red jacket who looks straight out of a colourful version of The Matrix (1999). She is first introduced as a possible saviour for the characters (and this movie) but soon becomes another boring cog in this loud, clumsy machine.
The same can be said for Shrike (Stephen Lang), an undead Terminator skeleton look-alike with an awesome dustcoat that would make Clint Eastwood jealous. Both Anna and Shrike have their own opposing motivations and kickass means but like the rest of the characters, they fade into the background as mediocrity and exhausting storytelling unfolds.
As the movie test ideas of sentimentality and good morals by the 45-minute mark, we do not care who wins or loses but hope this visually loud and overpacked vanity project ends quickly and painlessly. Much like World of Warcraft (2016) and The Dark Tower (2017) movie adaptations, Mortal Engines becomes an instantly forgettable movie with too much fat and no justice being done to the original source material.
The character motivations could be summed up by paraphrasing the poet Taylor Swift in saying ’bad guys gonna bad, good guys gonna good‘ and that’s essentially it. It is disappointing to see Jackson and his protégé bungle a movie that could be smoothly and slowly told over several films instead of this single edition that is filled with eye-rolling moments, cheesy dialogue and poor performances.
If you feel like sitting in an air-conditioned cinema for a few hours this summer, then watch this film. However, if it is substance and interesting world building you’re after then you are better off seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse instead.
Summary: Mortal Engines is an instantly forgettable movie with too much fat and no justice being done to the original source material.