Mortal Engines, 2018.
Directed by Christian Rivers.
Starring Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Frankie Adams, Colin Salmon. Caren Pistorius, Andrew Lees, Sarah Munn, Joel Tobeck, Stephen Ure, Menik Gooneratne, Nathaniel Lees, Sarah Peirse, Leifur Sigurdarson, Sophie Cox, Mark Hadlow, Mark Mitchinson, Yoson An, Regé-Jean Page, Kee Chan, Philip Reeve, and Stephen Lang
In a post-apocalyptic world where cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive, two people meet in London and try to stop a conspiracy.
Mortal Engines is a case of having some tantalizing world-building concepts that have nowhere refreshing to go past mobile cities on wheels roaming the apocalypse. Although the marketing will have you believe that Lord of the Rings franchise helmer Peter Jackson is directly responsible for adapting this novel from Philip Reeve, the experience actually comes from first-time filmmaker Christian Rivers (who has worked on those fantasy epics and clearly did a good job to earn the support of Peter Jackson and company writing the script). Another impressive and impressive component comes in the form of soundscape composer Junkie XL of Mad Max: Fury Road notoriety.
With a big distributor like Universal onboard, it’s safe to say that a ton of money was thrown at this thing, but it truly is difficult to see why other than trusting the level of detail involved assisting a first-time feature debut. Mortal Engines isn’t simply cliché and simplistic in the narrative but veers off track to introduce multiple more characters and subplots over an hour into the movie with varying degrees of success. Aside from traveling economies on land there is also a city up in the sky (think video game Bioshock: Infinite but with far less intriguing storytelling) seemingly under command by South Korean singer-songwriter Jihae as hardened warrior Anna Fang, trying her damnedest to bring the film back from the brink of bottomless boredom; she has a stylized shotgun that doubles as a melee weapon while also eliciting ferocious and defiant bad-assery. Obviously, the climax will see land and air duking it out with a predictable outcome, but her formidable fighting skills and presence are a promise to make the inevitable dogfighting and onslaught of missiles striking somewhat exciting.
It’s also here where a robot ghoul protector barges in to further an unnecessarily complicated Hester’s (Hera Hilmar admirably playing up the independence and strength of her bountied wasteland scavenger) parental past. Between both of these entirely new elements cropping out at a time where forward momentum should stay consistent, the story dives into loads of exposition and a dramatic arc that tries so hard to pull at the heartstrings but may have some viewers using the failing segment as an opportunistic bathroom break. It’s not like there is much to miss. Stephen Lang does a fine job giving this resurrected sentient being (the lore of this character is explained within two minutes) conflictingly empathetic sides of malicious intent and warmth, but for the film to achieve the kind of emotional punch intended higher importance is required rather than turning it into a superfluous distraction.
The narrative overstuffing doesn’t stop there, as Hester, despite being entirely capable of handling herself by her lonesome, is given a full-blown love interest in the form of another awkwardly named character, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a bloke above London who uncovers what Hugo Weaving (he’s chewing the scenery here in chaotically evil power-hungry villain mode with an overabundance of shouting and pep that ensures audience attention) is really up to. Basically, the unlikely pairing must work together to put a stop to some nefarious deeds, which oddly enough would have never happened if Hester had succeeded in her assassination attempt; she comes so close by stabbing his body that the rest of the movie ends up frustrating. All she had to do was aim for a vital organ or stab a few more times, something that one would assume she would be absolutely prepared to do factoring in her tragic past. Anyway, given Hester’s unfortunate life, it’s understandable that the story would want to give her some meaningful human interaction, but there’s no need to waste time with a half-baked romance.
The actual world-building here deserves praise and I suspect some moviegoers will be with Mortal Engines for the extended opening set piece showcasing the towering behemoth city deploying some heavy artillery to take out some wanderers (for some remaining but dwindling resources). It’s also fascinating paying attention to the inner details of how this steampunk machinery functions, but it’s clear from the second Hugo Weaving is announced as a madman with the subtlety of a brick that the narrative will have no idea how to give these characters depth over a two-hour running time. Mortal Engines mistakes cleverness for using a pair of Minions as current day valuable artifacts from our own culture (that was decimated by an event known as the 60-Minute War), and lazy character definition such as giving Hester a facial scar (with the script pretending as if some fancy makeup effects render her hideous. The fact that she wears a bandit mask is basically an affront to people that are actually disfigured).
It’s all a shame considering the actors (most of them relatively unknown) are making the most of the material but are failed by a story more fixated on visual effects than a reason for the world comprised of that imagery existing. Make no mistake about it, the parts that completely stunk would have been enjoyable with better pacing and execution, and I actively tried engaging with them. However, there is also an episodic feel that makes every side story feel purposeless and inconsequential.
By the time recovered and up-and-running modern weaponry from our world is threatening whatever peace remains in this apocalyptic universe, there is a tiny bit of investment, but the action sequences that follow end up exhausting and go on for nearly 30 minutes with mediocre craft, at best. There are self-sacrifices, unexpected deaths, one-on-one confrontations, multiple battles unfolding simultaneously, a race against time (complete with the slowest input of a series of numbers on a computer screen I’ve ever seen in a movie), and somehow none of it makes you care about anyone. Mortal Engines comes crumbling down immediately following the introduction, leaving behind rare loot demanding tighter craftsmanship.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com