Mortal Engines is a movie so close to being good sometimes it’s depressing. Christian Rivers’ post-apocalyptic hero’s melodrama is a visually gorgeous movie. Sadly, it’s hampered by characters so paper thin it’s a miracle they don’t float away mid-sentence. It’s less a story and more two hours filled with concepts and action set pieces.
At times while watching Mortal Engines, I felt as if I was watching someone pitch a tabletop RPG rather than a movie. Indeed I caught myself thinking I’d rather play this than watch it several times throughout the movie.
To be fair, the concepts of Mortal Engines are absolutely made for the big screen. The notion that civilization all but wiped itself out within a span of sixty seconds using weapons of mass destruction is not that far-fetched—the “Sixty Second War” as the character’s call it. Especially when we realize the weapons, far from being atomic, are instead energy conductors. The remaining survivors exist on mobile tanks, cities on wheels if you will.
From time to time smaller cities will connect with each other to form one larger city and become stationary. But other cities, larger cities, roam the countryside, threatening to gobble up the smaller cities and strip them for parts and resources. The bigger cities are called “predator colonies,” and as concepts go, it’s a beautiful metaphor that isn’t even remotely a metaphor.
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson adapted the script from the novel of the same name, unread by me, by Philip Reeve. The archetypes that play well on the page begin to grate after a while when blown up to larger than life. The trio has peppered the story with what seems like a tsunami of mythos but as the story trundles along, we realize it’s all illusion.
Bear me with me if you will as I try and give you some idea of the plot. But first, the villain, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). He is the chief architect on London, a predator colony. A local celebrity and high ranking official, he is seen by everyone in the city as a benevolent progressive official. Whatever faults the script may have, the naming of its villain and it’s heroine are not one of them.
The name Valentine rolls off the tongue and seems uniquely suited to be growled, mumbled, bellowed, and cursed. Have no fear, Mortal Engines finds a way to say Valentine’s name in all these forms. Plus in a few ways I’m not sure how to qualify.
The heroine is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Much like Valentine, characters throughout the movie’s runtime find a myriad of ways to holler, cry, whisper, mutter, and curse. I’m telling you, if there’s one thing Mortal Engines understands it’s the value of a good name to cry out.
Rivers has wisely cast charismatic leads in both Weaving and Hilmar. Weaving, as ever, struts, plots, and schemes his way towards the climax. He has a way of arching an eyebrow that spells devious machinations in a way few actors working today possess.
Himlar in her trench coat and red scarf that covers her face skulks around the edges of the frame like The Shadow in the opening few minutes. Of all the characters, she knows what evil lies in Valentine’s heart. Hester Shaw’s character arc goes from “I must kill Valentine” to “I must kill Valentine” but Hilmar sells it. She has a wonderful mystery about her as she plays a desperate loner traversing the outlands in search of vengeance.
Now, Hester tracks down a smaller city that she hopes will be eaten up by London. Lo and behold, she lucks out. Once aboard London, she attempts to assassinate Valentine. As she emerges from the crowd, her billowing red scarf covering her “hideous” scar, she yells out, what else, “Valentine!” I’m telling you, it’s a great name.
Hester is foiled by Tom (Robert Sheehan), a local historian who works for the museums. His job is to give us the exposition. It is here where Rivers drops the ball. Whatever talents Sheehan has, bearing the weight and responsibility of the character affectionately called “Captain Exposition” in my head is not one of them. A failing that is compounded by Walsh, Boyens, and Jackson’s insistence that even though Hester is the one with the hero’s name, the backstory, and the look, Tom is actually the hero.
Oh, Hester gets a few moments, but Tom is the one who teaches her how to love. It is around this point that I began to feel a creeping terror. Aside from Hester, there is Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George). Hester is the gritty, genderless, humorless, brunette while Katherine is the bubbly, perfectly coiffed, kind, jovial blonde. She’s the doting daughter who will have her world shaken by the discovery of the monster her father truly is.
Except she gets shoved aside and almost forgotten. But don’t worry, she is shown the error and naivety of her ways by a puckish mechanic, Bevis (Ronan Raftery). Are you starting to sense a pattern? It gets worse.
As Mortal Engines, started I was pleased to see an array of non-white characters in the background. Even Tom’s boss, the head of the museum, Chudleigh Pomeroy (Colin Salmon), is included. Salmon, a black man, is an actor who it just so happens would slaughter the Captain Exposition role. Sadly he is left behind. With each passing minute, a character played by a person of color would be introduced and then promptly vanished never to be seen again.
Until Anna Fang (Jihae) shows up. Jihae’s Fang is a dashing, swaggering rebel leader so charismatic and larger than life it makes us weep that we soon have to return to Tom and Hester’s whimpering relationship. Fang is known as a terrorist, and throughout most of the film, her face adorns bounty posters and television screens. She is infamous but we’re never really told why.
Jihae’s role is both smaller than you think but nowhere near as large as it should be. She is quite frankly, perfect. If Mortal Engines would drop Bevis and Tom and focus on the trinity of Hester Shaw, Katherine, and Anna all coming together to defeat “Valentine!” we’d have ourselves a winner.
Yet Rivers never seems to decide what he wants to do. Mortal Engines feels like a rich and inventive world, but the more we explore it the more it seems staid and familiar. He teases us with possibilities but rarely delivers.
Though the sky city, a floating city that doubles as a docking station, was far and away just a beautiful piece of set design. I’m a sucker for steampunk-inspired aviation design, and Anna Fang’s ship and the city itself were a highlight of the movie. It’s a series of hot air balloons with each house designed like a paper lantern. It was a glimpse of the imagination sitting on much of the surface but lacking in the core of Mortal Engines.
It should come as no surprise that the one character with the most heart and most emotionally effective character arc was the Frankenstein-esque robot bounty hunter, Shrike (Stephen Lange). We’re told that back when humanity was rebuilding itself after the Sixty Second War, the Lazarus Patrol was built. Part mechanical and part rotting corpse flesh, they wouldn’t stop until their mission was completed.
Wouldn’t you know it? Valentine hears about Shrike, locked away on a Prison boat who won’t stop bellowing the name, “Hester Shaw!” So, he sinks the prison, allowing Shrike to escape and hunt down Hester for “breaking her promise.” I won’t reveal what her promise is. Suffice to say, I found Shrike’s and Hester’s relationship to be fraught with a kind of dark and compassionate love entirely out of place in Mortal Engines.
The final scene between the two had me a little choked up if I’m honest. Lange’s voice and Hilmar’s face convey a rich, vibrant, and full gamut of emotions. They somehow transcend the mediocrity and schlock of Mortal Engines and achieve something truly moving and dramatic.
Simon Raby’s camera gives us a colorful movie but the frames never pop. The action feels photographed instead of captured. Mortal Engines starts out strong but begins to drag, partly because it has no feel or style. It has a production design and an art department, but a movie is more than it’s props. Movies are about movement. How characters move within the scene. The timing of the cuts between frames. All of it coalesces to make up a feel and rhythm of a story. Mortal Engines is in focus, the set design is lush and gorgeous, but it has no feeling, flow, or energy.
The last act of Mortal Engines drags on for an eternity of time. I mentally checked out, as I’m wont do with movies like these. If you’ve seen one overblown, lengthy, special effect laden, drawn out action set piece, you’ve seen them all.
Movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wisely connect the story to the action so the fights have real-world consequences beyond ‘stop the doohickey from blowing up and save the world’. While Mortal Engines never has the fate of the world hanging in the balance, it already ended before the movie started; after all, it has more than its fair share of doohickeys. It’s just not enough to save the movie.