Lacking some of the cynicism of other franchise-launchers, Mortal Engines is nonetheless an limited adaptation of the first of Philip Reeve’s excellent YA novels. Now looking certain for commercial doom, it’s a creditable maiden voyage in intentions but not execution.
Reeve’s setting is the film’s primary strength, a nuclear post-apocalypse in which surviving cities have been converted into hulking steampunk traction engines, roaming the badlands in search of metal junk to power their voracious engines. This evocative and fantastical central idea powers parts of Mortal Engines, with an opening city-chase the film’s most exciting and grounded set-piece.
With tremendous effects work throughout the film, we are whisked from the towering strata of mechanised London to a preposterous balloon-based trading posts, revolutionary utopian static settlements and more. Giant, lived-in mechanical centipedes and walkers transport protagonists and baddies alike around this rekindling world.
Sadly, away from the conceptual and visual sides of the film, audiences are treated to simplified, box-quote versions of the surprisingly challenging characters Reeve wrote. Semi-reluctant heroes Hester (Hera Hilmar) and Tom (Robert Sheehan) are an embittered outcast and a fairly useless cad thrust together by the machinations of a dastardly Hugo Weaving.
Weaving’s Thaddeus Valentine is hatching an energy-generation plan for London that promises to destroy any hope of peaceful life for static settlements on the European steppes. Hester is drawn into the conflict, and Tom dragged after her, Hilmar’s fiery determination sadly not quite playing well with Sheehan’s bubbling good intentions (and overly plummy accent).
After a strangely hasty set of encounters with the eerie Shrike, a stitched-together cyborg whose pathos is botched, the film moves towards a ho-hum “rebels versus empire” re-run of Star Wars‘s trench run and any other number of conclusions to round off its story neatly enough. Led by Jihae’s Anna Fang and assorted pals, this movement is hastily sketched and unclear in its aims. More widely, the opposition between moving and still cities is similarly nebulous.
Mortal Engines has some cracking elements and ingredients, but their sum is sadly lacking. A brisk book does not always translate in pacing, and, in sticking to a laudably inoffensive two-hour runtime, the film’s complexities are lost and muddled, and its characters’ interactions and growth feel barebones at the best of times. Without standout performances to elevate the material, and with limited humour, its strong points begin to look isolated indeed.
Peter Jackson (who produces and co-writes here) may reflect that his name was invoked slightly wantonly in the failed marketing campaign trying to drive Mortal Engines to success. With more judicious cutting, even of elements that had potential, the film’s relatively novice director Christian Rivers might have had a better shot at crafting a worthy adaptation.
As it stands, Mortal Engines will likely be remembered fondly only by the book’s most dedicated fans, and by steampunk enthusiasts searching out prop inspiration.