Mortal Engines has some terrific world design and visuals, but its uninspired narrative and ungainly filmmaking make for a hollow viewing experience.
Despite what the film's marketing might have you believe, Peter Jackson didn't actually direct Mortal Engines. The Lord of the Rings filmmaker purchased the movie rights to Philip Reeve's post-apocalyptic source material in 2009, but later placed the project on hold while he made The Hobbit trilogy instead. Eventually, Jackson handed the job of directing Mortal Engines over to Christian Rivers, his trusted storyboard artist and Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor. Rivers has never called the shots on a feature-length film before (only a couple of shorts)... and, sorry to say, it shows here. Mortal Engines has some terrific world design and visuals, but its uninspired narrative and ungainly filmmaking make for a hollow viewing experience.
Mortal Engines takes place in a distant post-apocalyptic future where an ancient event known as the Sixty Minute War devastated human civilization and changed the geography of the earth itself. Since then, much of humanity has formed mobile traction cities and roam the planet scavenging for whatever resources they can find. The largest of these cities (like London) are known as "predator" cities and - somewhat literally - feed on smaller traction cities, in accordance with a principle known as "municipal Darwinism". However, they are opposed by the Anti-Traction League, a civilization that remains static and is protected by a massive shield wall.
The film's plot is set in motion when Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), London's Head of the Guild of Historians, is nearly assassinated by a mysterious woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), after she manages to make her way aboard London. Hester is thwarted by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) - a lower-tier Londoner and apprentice historian - but manages to avoid being captured, and inadvertently gets Tom kicked out of London by telling him the truth about her dark connection to Valentine. Left with no real choice, Tom and Hester thusly form an alliance as a means of survival in this dangerous world... all while Valentine carries out his secret plans to develop a weapon that could change the fate of the planet.
While Jackson didn't direct Mortal Engines, he still wrote the film with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and did some second unit direction in addition to serving as a producer. Mortal Engines attempts to provide both Tom and Hester with satisfying hero's journeys, while at the same time juggling a whole lot of world-building and additional character subplots. Unfortunately, as a result, Mortal Engines frequently breaks the cardinal "show, don't tell" rule and ends up bogged down in uninspired exposition. The film also has an odd habit of either making things more confusing when it attempts to explain what's going on, or not explaining characters, events, and/or locations that actually could use some clarification. Whereas something like Mad Max: Fury Road drops audiences into its post-apocalyptic setting and trusts them to understand how it works through observation, Mortal Engines keep varying its world-building approach and comes off feeling all the more muddled for it.
From a directorial perspective, however, Rivers and his crew have more success bringing Mortal Engines' vision of the post-apocalypse to fittingly epic cinematic life. The movie's battle sequences and traction city chases are impressively massive in their staging and really capture the scale of this world through their photography. Its set pieces are equally rich in detail and texture thanks to the production design by Dan Hannah (a longtime Jackson collaborator), and the similarly beautiful futuristic costumes by Bob Buck (The Hobbit trilogy) and Kate Hawley (Edge of Tomorrow, Suicide Squad). At the same time, however, Mortal Engines is far less confident when it comes to executing its one-on-one human fights and foot chases, resulting in some clunky editing and awkward shaky-cam imagery during these segments. Still, if you're planning to see Mortal Engines, an IMAX screening might be in order for the exhilarating score by Tom Holkenborg/Junkie XL, more than Simon Raby's comparatively mixed cinematography.
Unfortunately, the film ends up sacrificing much of its character development in order to make more room for all the world-building and spectacle. While Tom and Hester are ultimately granted simple but sufficient arcs, they're both noticeably two-dimensional in terms of their personalities. This makes the inherently-problematic decision to tone down Hester's facial scarring from the Mortal Engines book all the more dubious since, had she kept her original look, it would've been a good visual shorthand for her survivalist mentality and personal trauma. Since there's even less room for the film's massive supporting ensemble to be fleshed out, key players like Valentine and Anti-Traction League pilot Anna Fang (Jihae) are never developed beyond basic villain and hero archetypes either. This also makes it near-impossible for Mortal Engines to do justice by the story threads involving Thaddeus' daughter, Katherine Valentine (Leila George), and Shrike (Stephen Lang): the last member of an undead soldier battalion resurrected via machine parts and, more importantly, Hester's former guardian.
What's frustrating about all this is that Mortal Engines actually has some pretty interesting characters - not to mention, some fascinating world-building concepts and sociopolitical overtones. It also manages to draw inspiration from a variety of sources (ranging from Mad Max to Star Wars and even Terry Gilliam's Brazil), yet avoids feeling too derivative of any one particular inspiration. Unfortunately, the execution just isn't up to snuff and the resulting film ends up feeling overstuffed with ideas and characters that never realize their full potential. While the fault no doubt lies in part with the movie's script, Rivers' lack of experience behind the camera is clearly part of the problem too. He obviously knows how to make a film that looks big, but his storytelling mistakes hinder Mortal Engines and result in an adventure that feels clumsy more than sweeping.
With so many equally grand-scale but overall better tentpoles hitting theaters this month, Mortal Engines is far from a must-see on the big screen - even for those who are intrigued by the idea of a Peter Jackson epic done in the style of a Mad Max movie. That said, those who are still interested in checking this one out would do well to go the whole nine yards and watch it in IMAX (if possible), since its eye candy and audio really do benefit from the format. As for everyone else: here's to hoping things turn out better the next time Jackson himself calls the shots on a big-budget production.
Mortal Engines is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 128 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!
- Mortal Engines (2018) release date: Dec 14, 2018