A new fantastical series of novels comes to the big screen in Mortal Engines, bringing some much-needed freshness to a landscape of samey releases. With much of the brains behind the Lord of the Rings films, on paper it seems like this hefty new book adaptation should be a breeze.
Over a millennium from now, the West’s cities have adopted “tractionism.” London, Berlin, and others have all been put on giant treads and roll across the earth looking for new resources — usually in the form of fresh, new city-meat. London’s frontside is capable of swallowing a smaller town whole, munching its metal for scrap and assimilating its population as its own.
It’s fantastical steampunk with a step towards Mad Max dystopia, lightly connected to our time by these cities salvaging our old iPhones and Fitbits for parts. Mortal Engines uses the opportunity to poke fun at our era, pointing to statues of Minions as deities we used to worship.
Mechs and the City
In such a unique world, Mortal Engines has a lot of work to do in getting the viewer up to speed. Its strong start succeeds in doing this while simultaneously getting its main story underway. These characters are products of 500 years of tractionism, and we’re mostly spared the Harry Potter-esque shots of open-jawed wonder at the magnificent cities.
This opening 15 minutes is the highlight of the film. A highly impressive sequence showing the mighty treads of London catching and preying on a continental town is everything you’d hope from a movie like this, and is sure to please book fans who want their universe visualised.
Over 100 elaborate sets were created for the cities we see in Mortal Engines, and surprisingly few scenes were dependent on green screen. The effort shows. While not a lot (read: not enough) of Mortal Engines’ two-hour screentime is devoted to the behemoths, they still steal the show. We’re treated to an inside look at the geared guts of London, a scavenging town on caterpillar legs, and a skybound floating city that somehow managed to avoid going down like the Hindenburg from flames or sparks.
These cities are the metropolis version of a transformer. It would seem like the scale of these cities would conflict with the maneuverability and speed they display, but Mortal Engines’ graphical wizardry does a great job of selling both at the same time. It’s almost a shame we have to spend time with characters afterwards.
A major theme in Mortal Engines is unsustainability. The little towns have all been swallowed by the big cities, the earth is flattened into a muddy paste, and where will we go now for resources?
Each city is large enough to support its own high society, while the poor (you can spot them by their Irish accents) toil away in the machine rooms. This is where London citizen Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) meets a rebel Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmarsdóttir). Sheehan does well as the lovable, naive technophile obsessed with “ancient tech.” The latter has been spared her disfigurement from the book, and the two lose some nuance in their dynamic as a result. This is Hollywood — only minor facial scars allowed.
The two are pitted against Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) who has a less-than-wholesome plan for London’s future. Weaving is always wonderful but his role doesn’t demand much of him here. Eventually we’re introduced to Anna Fang (Jihae) who exposes the duo, and the viewer, to the anti-tractionist movement aiming to stop roaming cities. Another monkey wrench is thrown in when a single-minded assassin named Shrike (Stephen Lang) is sent to kill Hester Shaw.
The amount of set-up work for both characters and the wider world can leave Mortal Engines feeling both rushed and stretched at the same time. These characters are interesting but they weren’t given many weighty lines to remember them by, despite the underpinning philosophical themes and parallels to our current resource problems.
The end result left us wanting more of the giant city clashes, as the climax of the movie is devoid of the same kind of unprecedented, interesting conflict. The scale is there — but the nature of that showdown is more understood by us than we’d like.
Is Mortal Engines Good?
We rather like when films deliberately go out of their way to avoid cliche, and Mortal Engines steers a wide berth around our expectations. One major character only enters halfway through the movie, and a major event from the book is discarded to avoid the inevitable Star Wars comparisons that would’ve followed.
There is a history to this world that only the keen-eyed will notice in the movie, and there are easter eggs for fans of the novels. With four books of material, not very much made it into the first film. Universal will be watching its success before committing to a second, and perhaps a videogame.
For a movie about transforming cities, we would’ve liked to see more transforming cities. But new ideas seem so rare in Hollywood these days, and it’s refreshing to have big set pieces that don’t involve web shooters. With that in mind, the first 15 minutes is probably worth it alone — even if Mortal Engines rolls downhill afterwards.