This steampunk story, which often feels like an extra-large Fury Road on steroids, has a great world-building but a disappointing story.
By Rafael Motamayor
Mortal Engines is the big-budget live-action steampunk that film fans of that subgenre have always wanted, complete with stunning visuals and world-famous top performances. Christian Rivers makes his directing debut after working in visual effects with frequent collaborators (and co-authors and co-producers) Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and delivers the kind of ambitious blockbuster that we have not seen for years.
Mortal Engines would like to show you what it is like, that the film starts while the Universal logo is still on the screen, because we see purple-tinted bombs that start on the logo at different locations on the famous globe. Visually and in terms of scale, this is an extra-large Fury Road on steroids. Based on the novels by Philip Reeve, we start with two literal cities that chase each other and suck up smoke and dirt while the monstrosities on wheels slowly travel across a vast and deserted European landscape. London shoots massive harpoons in the smaller town, while some small trees are decimated under the gigantic wheels of the metropolis. As if the visual connections with the Wasteland of Max Rockatansky were not enough, I would not blame you for seeing Furiosa after listening to the great score of Junkie XL here.
After a short but intense opening chase we meet Tom Natsworthy, a historian-in-training who is conquered with joy when he finds an artifact from the ancient world as a cracked iPhone. Robert Sheehan plays this typical YA franchise naive guy who longs to see the world and become a warrior, and is suddenly very adept at fighting without building. Tom's work gets the attention of the powerful Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who does not even try to hide how bad he is, or his complete lack of motivation.
The problem arises when a scarred murderer named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, with a not really discernable scar) sneaks aboard London to avenge her mother's death and kill Valentine. Hilmar is a perfectly capable leader, who does most of the emotional weightlifting of the film while she has covered half of her face with a scarf, but she has no chemistry with Sheehan and they have spent the entire movie together. Hester works individually as a strict young woman who has had a difficult surviving life, but the film forces an unnecessary relationship between Hester and Tom, which comes from nowhere and does not bear fruit.
By far the weakest part of Mortal Engines is the scenario of Jackson, Boyens and Walsh. The characters are thin and the dialogue is laughably bad. Each plot point feels familiar to the point where you can predict almost every line of dialogue. The script also does not allow subtlety in its parallels with current world politics, especially Brexit. However, after revealing Valentine's plan to conquer a peaceful nation in the east to take their sources, the film unintentionally offers a meta-commentary on Peter Jackson's other large franchise.
When we first see the land of Shan Guo, a nation state in the Himalayas, the film makes it a point to show that Governor Khan (Kee Chan) is trying to find an alternative to a frontal attack on London, because it would mean that the death of civilians and the people of Shan Guo appreciate life above all else. This strong contrast between the violent ways in which the western city of London tries to destroy the friendly nation in the east is a turn of the tables of Lord of the Rings, where the pure and good "Men of the West" consistently "rise against the evil forces of Sauron in the East.
When the film shines, it's a thousand times, just like Fury Road, and it's mainly because of its amazing series of action and its enormous world-building. Like the world of Mad Max (or the original Star Wars), Mortal Engines shows constant references to world events, locations and traditions without pausing to explain. The world of film offers many strange sights, such as an insect-like vehicle that does not roll as much as it crawls over the desert, and a market for people's flesh. There are also the varied designs for the planes, which I hoped the film was further explored. How can you introduce a giant floating city and not spend more time in it? Well, at least they have taken the time to make a good-looking London, something that every local population will immediately recognize. The wizards at Weta Workshop clearly gave their attention to getting the details right, especially when it came to sights such as Tottenham Court Road and the London Eye.
Speaking of steampunk, the production and costume designs for Mortal Engines are dazzling. From the different cities – including the centipede – to the clothing of the characters, there is enough diversity to make the world of the film big. The design peaks with Shrike, a half-android, half-ghoul who is hunting for Hester. Although he has almost no lines or screen time, Shrike makes the biggest impression in the film, with a surprisingly deep and emotional background story and a great performance by Stephen Lang, who injects much-needed humanity into a completely mechanical film.