MORTAL ENGINES ½
PG-13, 128 mins.
2018, PG-13, 128 mins.
Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw / Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy / Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine / Jihae as Anna Fang / Ronan Raftery as Bevis Pod / Leila George as Katherine Valentine / Patrick Malahide as Magnus Crome / Stephen Lang as Shrike
Directed by Christian Rivers / Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, based on the book by Philip Reeve
MORTAL ENGINES is an absolutely stunning triumph of visual effects, art direction, and production design.
It's also, rather unfortunately, an abysmal failure on a basic character and story front.
Despite an ambitiously bonkers premise, I simply didn't care about anyone or anything in this post apocalyptic sci-fi film. I think the overall intent when it comes to cinematic world building is for a film to legitimately feel like it's transporting you to another time and place and makes, in turn, its otherworldly universe seem tangible and real. But they also have to populate these miraculous worlds that inspire awe and wonder with personas that we identify with. MORTAL ENGINES is an awesome display of filmmaking technology that's rendered all but soulless and dramatically D.O.A. by the hollowness of its writing.
This is, when all is said and done, one the best looking
I've ever seen.
But, man oh man,
this film - based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Philip Reeve - has
one gangbusters premise: In a world of the very distant future, well after a
massive global cataclysm, the remaining cities have been mounted on
motorized wheels and zip around what remains of the planet to "devour" and assimilate smaller mobile cities.
To say that Reeve's book was preposterously high concept
is the grandest of understatements, and I can certainly see what
producer Peter Jackson (also serving as co-screenwriter here, adapting the
source material with fellow LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy writers Fran Walsh
and Philippa Boyens) saw the big screen potential of this material.
Utilizing the same effects wizards that previously brought Middle Earth
to life and director Christian Rivers (a long time art director that has
worked under Jackson for years and won an Oscar for his VFX work on KING
KONG), the pedigree of the crew on board for
MORTAL ENGINES is stellar, and this American-New Zealand production
succeeds on a level of pure visual dynamism that deserves to be seen on as
big of a screen as possible.
Mournfully, though, all of the eye popping spectacle in the world
is all for naught when the screenplay itself is of the pedestrian and
woefully derivative kitchen sink variety.
For the most part, MORTAL ENGINES is hopelessly awash in Young
Adult genre troupes that has no business being as dull as it is.
solemn voiceover narration early on informs us how "The
Ancients" destroyed Earth's cities in "only 60 minutes."
That's awfully quick, even by post-apocalyptic film standards.
After this so-called "Sixty Minute War" the remains of
society regrouped, as they always do in these types of films, and formed
beyond huge "Predator Cities" that hunt and take over smaller
cities in what remains of Europe, in a process referred to as
Now, how any civilization that was left over from cities decimated
in under 60 minutes managed to scavenge enough raw materials, fuel, and
manpower to build cities on massive wheels the film never once plausibly
How did they build the engines
and wheels? How did they hoist cities and place them on top of said
engines? Where did they get the tools and equipment? Where did
they get the machinery and workforce? Where did they get food and supplies
to support the cities and the men and women that built and live in
them? How does the massive weight of these Predator Cities not lead
to them sinking into the soil beneath them while in transport? Seeing as a majority of the
environments shown in the film
appear to be barren and inhospitable wastelands it's highly doubtful that
the makers of the Predator Cities could have bought building materials and
rented tools and a local Home Depot.
The present day
of the film - a thousand years in the future - introduces us to the
Predator City of London, overseen and commanded by Mayor Magnus Crome
(Patrick Malahide) as he bares down on the smaller mining settlement
mobile city of Salzhaken (this opening action sequence is one of the few
spellbinding moments in the film, giving us our first sensory overload
appearance of these cities and how London literally opens up its mouth to
harpoon in and eat its smaller prey, which builds towards the only moment
in movie history having a military man scream out the order "PREPARE
One of the refugees from the smaller city, Hester Shaw (Hera
Hilmar), attempts to assassinate the Guild of the Historians in London, Thaddeus
Valentine (Hugo Weaving), which is foiled by one of his
apprentices, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan).
Both Hester's and Tom's lives change for the worse when the nefarious
Thaddeus shows his true colors as a baddie and violently ejects them both
out of London, leaving them to certain death.
Struggling to survive the scorched earth, Tom and Hester learn of
Thaddeus' plan to build an unstoppable weapon to destroy everything that
gets in London's way, which forces them to team up with the Anti-Traction
League (who live in non-mobile cities) to stop Thaddeus.
Complicating matters is an undead mechanical creature named Shrike
(Stephan Lang, in heavily disguised CGI form) that has deep personal ties
to Hester's past that prove rather dangerous for all moving forward.
There's so much
bloody going on here in MORTAL ENGINES that I felt compelled to take notes
during my screening to make sense of it all.
There's simply so many characters with so many individual motives
permeating the film that one has to begin wondering whether or not this
would have worked better in a long form mini-series to properly flesh out
versus the limiting time frame of a two hour movie.
Plus, there's an awful lot of exposition littered throughout the
narrative that's intended, I guess, to establish the particulars of this
world and how all of the characters fit inside of it, but character
development is so ineptly handled here that I was left puzzled as to why I
really should root for Hester and her overall mission...other than the
fact the movie tells me I should.
The undercooked performances don't help the cause either, with Sheenan
and Hilmar failing to generate any ample charisma and chemistry together as a
pair of banded heroes.
Hell, even the great Hugo Weaving - so wonderfully inspired in
other films playing memorable villains - seems atypically reserved here.
His performance never seems to embrace the sheer absurdity of the
film's premise; like the whole enterprise's tone, Weaving plays his part
as serious as a heart attack and without any self-deprecating irony.
Too much of
MORTAL ENGINES feels distractingly appropriated from too many other better
like a steam punk STAR WARS
crossed morphed with George Miller's MAD
MAX: FURY ROAD with a healthy dosage of Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL
haphazardly thrown in for good measure.
It's not ever a good hodgepodge, seeing as MORTAL ENGINE's plot
itself is a blow-by-blow replay of George Lucas' first entry set in a
galaxy far, far away.
You have a young and determined hero with mysterious parentage that
allies herself with snarky mercenaries to wage war on a megalomaniacal
villain with aspirations of world domination that's building a super laser
weapon that can destroy cities with one blast.
Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?
Lucas himself, it could be argued, amalgamated several genres,
classic storytelling archetypes, and iconic hero's journey themes from
countless source materials when conceptualizing STAR WARS, but his end
result fostered a whole new and audaciously realized pop culture mythology
that felt exciting and new despite its borrowing from the past.
MORTAL ENGINES, by direct comparisons, is high on borrowing but
decidedly very, very low on conceptual freshness.
And unlike Lucas' grand and fully fleshed out universe, the
post-nuclear wasteland with cities on wheels of this film never makes an
intriguing case for viewers to want to return to it in further installments.
And considering the vastness of scale in display in MORTAL ENGINES, the
film feels emotionally thin and hollow.
This is as visually dazzling as any blockbuster I've ever seen, to be sure. The film has a lavish and sweeping epic stature with its imagery that's superficially impressive and has the power to wow viewers, but where's the inspirational and ethereal magic that taps into the deeper recesses of our collective imaginations with a transformative potency? Despite remarkable, Oscar caliber eye candy, MORTAL ENGINES is an exhausting and wasteful slog of a film with non-committal performers and lethargic scripting that rarely ever achieves euphoric lift-off. And considering the enormity of the talent on board here and the vast resources utilized, this is one of the most wasteful and unremarkable film endeavors of 2018. MORTAL ENGINES is a $100-plus million visual effects highlight reel...and not much else.