Review: Mortal Engines


Post-apocalyptic films have enjoyed a long run, and apparently, that’s not changing anytime soon. We humans are concerned about the future; what’s it going to be like? Will cars fly? Will my Nike’s self-lace? Will people be filthy street urchins or beautiful golden geese? Will we imprison people for pre-crimes?

Or, will cities be mobile, mechanized monstrosities that roam the earth’s crust devouring the weaker cities in their path? Hold on now—that sounds interesting. Which is what Peter Jackson and friends must have thought when they made Mortal Instruments. I’ll be honest, I was hooked when I saw that the trailer promised as much. But if you thought you were coming to see a post-apocalyptic movie about steampunk cities doing battle to the death, then you’re in for some serious disappointment. You’ve already seen most of that action in the trailer.

Instead, you’re in store for the same sort of yawn-spawn political posturing that comprised the worst of The Matrix sequels.

Mortal Engines - Official Trailer (HD)

Mortal Engines
Director: Christian Rivers
Rated: PG-13
Release Date: December 14, 2018

Three thousand years in the future, humanity has survived a global conflict called the Sixty Minute War by turning our metropolises into giant, resource-stripping entities. But let’s not dwell on them for too long, after all, they sort of show up now and again, but that’s not what this party is about.

It’s all about the people. There’s seemingly good, actually bad Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the de facto power in London with ambitions to become even more so. There’s Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a woman with a scar on her face and a hankering for some revenge served any temperature you want it. You read that right. She’s got a scar. On her face. At one point, she’s even labeled a “swamp donkey” for it. There’s Anna Fang (Jihae), a terrorist of some sort who, being Asian, knows martial arts. Then there’s Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), who starred in another Mortal movie 5 years ago. He’s a historian from a less-than-noteworthy London caste with a penchant for chasing knife-wielding assailants into certain death situations just because.


It’s not the character archetypes or coincidences that are problematic. It’s the writing. Having never read the book the film is based on, I can’t say how much this is the 2001 source material or the original take on it. In any case, adaptations can change that which they’re adapting. So, either way, it was a failure to leave so much of the pedantic political and societal machinations in the story. Rather than focusing on one character’s point of view in this fantastic future land and slowly peeling back the layers to reveal backstory, we’re force-fed motivations through a series of hard-to-follow cuts that interrupt the one city chase scene and dilute its power onscreen.

I can say this with absolute certainty; when it comes to the future, no one wants to learn that politics are just as corrupt and inept as they are today, much less watch a fantasy movie about it. 

What we do like to watch are fantastic situations brought to life by master storytellers and filmmakers. Although officially directed by Christian Rivers, this is a Peter Jackson piece. He wrote and produced it along with his long, long-term writing collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Rivers has been teaming with Jackson since the beginning of their respective careers, lending his creative talents to storyboarding, special effects and visual effects. He even directed some 2ndunits on the Hobbit trilogy, meaning this team is proven goods. The Amazon reviews are in and we know they’re going to deliver.

In Mortal Engines this delivery comes in the form of the vividly imagined future tech and living cities which are stunning to behold on the big screen. But while those visuals do happen from time to time, the writing behind the filmmaking is failing to hold up its end of the bargain. For example, when Valentine suddenly reveals himself to be a bad guy, it’s not a surprise. I think it’s supposed to be, but we’ve all known he’s bad since he first appeared on screen, and not because his name is Valentine (always a bad guy these days), or even because it’s Hugo Weaving (usually a bad guy). It’s just transparent.

On the flip-side, if you like shameless Twinkie plugs and urine-drinking references that will make Bear Grylls squeal with delight, boy are you in for a treat!

I want to aim my blame-game ray at Jackson. It feels like if he’d directed this (The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit, and King Kong), it might have been better. Yet, he did write it, and we’ve established that the writing drives the narrative elements that weaken the film, so I’m not even sure that could have made this average movie better.

They’re trying to world build without building the world, simultaneously trying to cram as much material in to set the stage for presumed sequels, while not developing a plausible or motivational rationale for any character in the film. And there are a lot of characters! During the lone city chase scene, the action is repeatedly diminished as we shift back and forth between the chase and idle chit-chat with what feels like two dozen characters introduced in the span of moments.

I love Peter Jackson, and I want to like this movie because when it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s easy to get lost in the visual marvels. It’s a reflection of just how good special effects in filmmaking have become in recent years that I can see Mortal Engines and, while impressed, still have plenty to complain about. Special effects this good could have carried a movie a decade ago. Not so much any longer.

Did you know that there are three more books in the source material? Thankfully, this is a self-contained movie. While there’s enough ambiguity with some of the final events and outcomes to allow for sequels, the story is concluded well enough that a cliffhanger ending doesn’t spoil the payoff for sitting through to the end. Sure, you’re still scratching your head wondering why anyone in the movie did anything they did, but you’re content knowing that you won’t need to see a second, or third, or fourth to get answers. Still, if this manages to make enough money, those sequels may come. Let’s hope not.