Movie Review: Mortal Engines

mortal engines poster

Peter Jackson‘s Mortal Engines is a visual and creative feast for those of us who love production design and giant steampunk style machines. Unfortunately, its somewhat predictable plot and characters don’t help it become a more complete film, leaving it as cold and lifeless as one of its giant rolling cities. While this might be one of the best blockbusters you would normally have in theaters at any given time, this has the unfortunate luck of being in one of the most over-saturated and competitive markets in recent memory. It’s not a bad movie, but if someone asked for a recommendation of what to check out in a theater right now, I can’t wholeheartedly endorse this.

Our story, based on the novel of the same name, is about an apocalyptic future a thousand years from now where giant roaming cities practice “municipal cannibalism.” The larger cities find smaller trading posts and villages and consume their people and resources so that they can continue to exist.

Our action centers around one of the largest of these predator cities — London — where we find our hero Tom (Robert Sheehan). He is an archaeologist, meaning he studies “The Ancient Ones” of the 21st century, “The 60 Second War” that created the conditions of their world, where gigantic mega weapons destroyed most of civilization, fractured continents, and nearly wiped out all of humanity. He scavengers through the wreckage of the cities that they pick up looking for artifacts and even fabled weapons so that he can try to destroy them. However others around him may not have such benevolent purposes.

A mysterious scarred woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is picked up in the breathtaking opening minutes of the film in one of these smaller cities, and she seems to have a vendetta against one of London’s most powerful residents, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving).

This begins a chain of events that finds Hester and Tom outside of the city, chased by a sentient skeleton-like robot, picked up by slavers, and fighting for survival. We find out about much more of her backstory and what Valentine is trying to do in London, when she and Tom must work to prevent a repeat of the previous apocalypse.

Despite the complexity of that story, the plot is a little thin, it features one of the most obvious mcguffins ever, and at least halfway through seems to give up all pretense of even pretending to not just completely rip-off Star Wars. Again, that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if this weren’t competing against so many other blockbusters over the next month.

However, a lot of the creative and stylistic choices here seem to be made for the entertainment of Asian audiences, (the same way other films like Skyscraper and The Meg were) where this may perform substantially better.

It is a really gorgeous film. And unlike some most of Jackson’s recent outings, this does not feel bloated or overwrought. A lot of the credit has to go to director Christian Rivers, a Jackson protoge who worked in the art department and production design for Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and assistant director on The Hobbit films. But Jackson’s fingerprints are all over this, the same way George Lucas will leave his fingerprints on films. It is well-paced and the performances are enjoyable if not memorable.

With such a rich tapestry, my biggest complaint is wishing that this film had something important to say about the world. A story about a giant rampaging London consuming other cities could have something very poignant to say about consumption or capitalism competition. Instead it’s just very surface, but you really enjoy all of that extra work put into the design of London or an entire city built in the sky, or other really amazing action set-pieces.

This is the same Peter Jackson who brought us Lord of the Rings, but unfortunately he’s not working from a rich world built by JRR Tolkien. This is possibly worth seeing if you love spectacle but care less about story and character and deeper meaning. But there just isn’t much behind the beauty and machinations and technical wizardry of this film. If you do see this, treat yourself to an IMAX or other large-format screen, because at least you can appreciate the art and visuals here.

3 out of 5 stars