Do you remember when Twilight (2008) came out and a million Young Adult fantasy movies followed in its wake? Mortal Engines fits right into that mould, joining the wreckage of terrible literary adaptations.
Christian Rivers’ Mortal Engines is a dystopian steampunk movie set in a post-apocalypse where cities are now trundling around on wheels because of an ‘incident’ in the past. If you’re wondering what this mysterious ‘incident’ was, the movie doesn’t explain it. This detail, along with a million others, is glossed over entirely, with only an opening narration informing us that something happened to change the world. After which, all we get is a smattering passing mentions to our own era, such as a joke about our obsession with tiny yellow animated aliens and how our smartphones are ‘old tech’.
This is a problem because the film sets out to establish a link between our world and its own, in order to help us understand the premise…. but is stubbornly refuses to provide key details that would clear up our immediate questions. Mortal Engines actually feels like a sequel to a movie nobody saw. Fans of the novel written by Philip Reeve might understand the plot of Mortal Engines a little better, I can’t say for sure, but no one else will.
Instead of world-building, the film jumps directly into the middle of an action sequence between characters we don’t yet know very well, in a situation that consists of ‘predator cities’ chasing down slower cities for resources. The protagonist, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), doesn’t speak at all until about 20-minutes into the story—after the entire first action sequence is done with—and her first words are focused on revenge for a mother we don’t yet know either.
What this illuminates is the reason most fantasy movies start a different way. There’s a tranquil ‘before’, where we see the protagonist mostly happy and relatively content, then an incident propels them on a remarkable journey that changes them. This helps give the audience something to look back on and aim towards. We want our protagonist to be able to get back to their happy place, improved by the journey they went on. Mortal Engines doesn’t do this and, by going against the grain, it makes the entire first act pointless because we don’t understand the motivation or pain driving Hester’s actions. So we feel nothing about it, even though Hilmar uses her eyes to express as much emotion as she can. When we finally get to see Hester’s backstory, it’s executed only in short flashbacks that raise more questions than they answer.
Other characters fare even worse and often get thrown together to fight without us knowing much about them. Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, and Stephen Lang get one line to explain their backstories and then have to depend on their innate charms to sell their characters. This works, barely, but it makes any character’s death feel insignificant because we just don’t understand why we should even care. Even Justice League (2017), another movie that threw random people together, gave its team of characters more material to work with.
Mortal Engines was probably trying to emulate Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which likewise threw audiences into chaos and provided the explanations later. We didn’t know what’s happening in Mad Max half the time, and yet it was spectacular. The difference is that Fury Road was far removed from our reality and there’s nothing we could find similarity with, so we just strapped in and enjoyed the ride. Mortal Engines, on the other hand, is vaguely familiar and employs the names of cities and objects that we recognise today. It surely missed the requirement of explaining the process of how we got from A to B.
The actors are also let down by a shoddy script and dialogue. The screenplay sounds like the result of a student project paying tribute to the best fantasy movies. There’s everything 0ne would include: parental revelations, large action sequences in far-off locations, complex backstories, a slightly inhuman villain, and another antagonist much closer to home. It was so cringe-worthy it elicited laughter, as one could accurately predict the story beats and the actor’s lines by thinking of the most overdramatic choice possible.
There’s just one thing that saves the movie from being a complete train wreck: it’s visually stunning. First-time director Christian Rivers (who worked as Peter Jackson’s long-time storyboard artist) creates breathtakingly-beautiful scenes. From close-ups on a wheel to a hot-air balloon city, the VFX rivals any of Jackson’s own Middle-earth movies.
In fact, the entire movie feels like a series of storyboards, but storyboards themselves don’t show the full range of complexities when it comes to crafting a solid film. The focus on replicating the visuals in the storyboards eclipsed any extra thought on any of the other factors, and its glaring problems were then seemingly ignored by everyone involved in the project.
In the end, for a film that wanted us to viscerally experience living in a steampunk future, Mortal Engines is overwrought and emotionless. Just like many other YA book adaptations that tried and failed to win over audiences, it’s prioritised a cheesy plot and CGI-heavy action scenes over interesting character development. If Mortal Engines had explained Hester’s early life, and not focused on her relationship with her caretaker (and its deterioration), it would’ve been that more compelling.
Unfortunately, Mortal Engines is on track to become one of the biggest flops of the year, losing at least $100M on its budget.
Cast & Crew
director: Christian Rivers.
writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson (based on the novel by Philip Reeve).
starring: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide & Stephen Lang.