Mortal Engines (2018)
“Mortal Engines”starts with narration during the opening Universal logo. A gravelly, fantasy monster-type voice (you know the one) unloads some standard post-apocalyptic backstory that mostly goes in one ear and out the other and finishes up before the first frame. It’s the first sign of many that the filmmakers didn’t quite trust themselves, the audience, or both enough to fully invest in the story that follows.
Based on the steampunk young adult novel of the same name, “Mortal Engines” launches viewers into a barren continental Europe ruled by roving, landscape-flattening “traction cities” that compete to conquer one another and keep feeding their insatiable engines. Their designs and CGI execution are distinct and engrossing on the big screen, so when the first set piece ends with one mobile metropolis — London — consuming a smaller Victorian village, it’s undoubtedly something to behold.
The only problems are: 1) the excessive quick-cutting between locations, making it feel rushed and hard to follow; and 2) we don’t yet have any reason to care. From the opening voiceover on, “Mortal Engines”is frontloaded with worldbuilding exposition about the “60-Minute War” of earth-shattering quantum weapons that preceded this state of “municipal Darwinism,” as well as weirdly broad references to modern day pop culture — like Minion statues being featured in a museum as “American deities.”
Only after the opening urban battle do we get some semblance of specific plot and protagonist. Among the villagers gobbled up into the hierarchical empire of London is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a scarred, scarlet-bandanaed girl bent on revenge against oligarch Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) for murdering her mother Pandora (seriously) on his climb to power. After an attempt on his life, she’s expelled from the city alongside hapless history scholar Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), and they spend most of the film together questing to return before Valentine can utilize the new quantum superweapon to start conquering the stationary settlements of Shan Guo (read: China).
Along the way, they encounter a caterpillar-like crawler of stereotypical cockney types, a gorgeous airborne city of anti-tractionists — led by aviator Anna Fang (Jihae) and a Scooby Doo-level glowing zombie robot named Shrike — hellbent on making Hester keep her promise to become a robot, too. Other subplots show Valentine squaring off against a stuffy aristocratic Lord Mayor figurehead (Patrick Malahide) and Valentine’s upper-crust daughter uncovering and coming to terms with her father’s warmongering misdeeds.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. After taking flak for spreading a 200-page book across three lackadaisically-plotted “Hobbit” films, it feels like producer and cowriter Peter Jackson went too far in the opposite direction, cramming an epic-length story into a two-hour running time.
The good news is that — despite some underexplained side characters — “Mortal Engines” is still pretty easy to follow. In fact, it seems to overcompensate for its bloated-ness by putting too fine a point on everything, but without enough breathing room for any story beat, thematic point or character development to really sink in, so the movie very quickly starts feeling like the Cliffs Notes version of a longer, more satisfying story.
What gets lost in the rush most consistently are the characters. Even on a scene-by-scene basis, there are awkward conversational shifts to blatant exposition and characters conveniently changing motivations in an instant to keep the plot humming along, more like chess pieces than real people.
The sad part is that there’s real cinematic richness to many of the movie’s visual ideas and themes of repeating history, but without the time to build them up; the moments meant to sum them up and induce audience cheers feel unearned at best, or like eyeroll-worthy clichés at worst. Some lines feel like mad libs from a fantasy franchise playbook, including: “Then one day, everything changed,” “You never head south in the Outlands,” and my personal favorite, “Cat’s cradle? I thought it was just a myth!”
Despite the poor scripting and editing that makes it seem like the movie got focus-grouped to death in post-production, I still enjoyed “Mortal Engines.” First-time director Christian Rivers, who’s worked as a storyboard artist on most all of Jackson’s films, brings an obvious eye for design (not to mention New Zealand landscapes) that helps distinguish settings and ground the larger-than-life action scenes.
“Mortal Engines” clearly has a strong enough story and visual foundation to make something great, but the actual construction of its dialogue, editing and character building feels shoddy and superficial. In my view, this could have been easily improved by giving its characters more time to develop as unique and worth caring about before thrusting them and audiences onto the next beat of a generic hero’s journey. Certainly some subplots could have been excised or saved for a potential sequel — though I’m admittedly glad this doesn’t feel like another franchise constantly teasing its next installment.