MORTAL ENGINES Doesn’t Sputter

Mortal Engines (2018)
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Directed by Christian Rivers
Produced by Zane Weiner, Amanda Walker, Deborah Forte, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Based on the novel by Philip Reeve
Rated PG-13

This review focuses solely on the movie, as I have not read the book on which it’s based. Having said that, I’m not sure that in this day and age of so many adaptations, whether it’s a good thing or not to have missed the source material. I suppose that it gives me the opportunity to enjoy or reject the film on its own merits, which is a pretty good starting point.

The premise: way off in the future, the “ancients” (that’s us) developed a mega-super-weapon called “Medusa” and used it in a massive series of attacks that essentially cracked Earth and moved continents with the force of the destruction. In sixty minutes, the entire world was blown back to the Steampunk Age. Whole communities now roam the countryside in vast mobile cities, scrounging for resources while trying to avoid the Megacities such as (in this case) London, which has crossed into Europe in an effort to tap into new sources of plunder.

Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine

While London has a mayor, the behind-the-scenes manipulator of events is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who has his sights set on something more than just raiding and pillaging. Only before he can act on his plans (the movie never makes a hard effort to hide that he’s the villain), enter one Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) trying to kill him to avenge her mother’s murder.

(While the idea of mobile cities is itself a little ridiculous on its face, it’s at least a little more palatable than having kids fight to the death in an arena for food supplies to be given to the winner’s home district…)

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw

Hester’s plan quickly (naturally) goes off the rails when she encounters Tom Natsworth (Robert Sheehan), who’s affable and likable and has just enough of the shine worn off that he’s not that annoying sidekick. I’m not sure why some are making him out to be the protagonist in this picture. He’s clearly helping to move the story forward, but it’s Hester’s journey we see, not his.

And that journey is fraught with peril — fraught, I tell you! — with twists and unexpected moments that subvert a good many trope expectations, which could have overpowered this film quite easily. But the story skates the edge and dodges at least a few of those bullets while Hester and Tom are dodging all of the dangers put before them.

First time director Rivers uses his CGI background to the fullest, not quite to the detriment of the cast — not like the Star Wars prequels did, anyway. The green screen work is obvious, but only because the entire environment is just too fantastic to be shot any other way. And while Mortal Engines may have a Star Wars moment or two, it doesn’t go over the top with those particular wince-inducing bits.

The plot moves forward at a steady pace, and it holds together within its own story logic, even though there are a couple of places where secondary characters could have been shored up a bit more. As it is, they show up to perform a function and then essentially disappear. It’s not enough to derail the story, but these folks are notable in their absence at the end.

Production design is impressive, with the city of London looking properly Victorian and steampunked in the right places. Plenty of archaic technology mixed in with slightly more modern equipment gives the film a “lived in” look that worked so well for George Lucas. Junkie XL’s music score at times feels like it’s trying to channel James Horner, but overall does the job. It’s serviceable, but not memorable.

Hugo Weaving delivers a performance that’s lacking in scene chewing menace. He’s a man on a mission, even though that mission may have gone to his head just a bit. The film could have very easily taken him into Lex Luthor levels of megalomania, but it doesn’t. Instead, Valentine comes across as someone who bought into his own press a little too much, but you can very easily see where his motivation started out as altruistic.

While our protagonist pair are young, they’re not so young that I felt I was watching a YA film, even though I was watching a YA film. Sheehan and Hilmar are attractive, but they’re not CW Network Pretty People™, so they’re much easier to watch than the cast of Divergent.

I also like the fact that it’s not set up to be the Next Big Franchise series of films, even though there are four books in the series. This is its own self-contained story, and could very well stand on its own without ever having to go into sequels. And while I don’t want to discourage you from seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a trip to see Mortal Engines would definitely be worth the time and effort. If only to see a dystopian future that doesn’t make everything depend on the kids…

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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