Review: ‘Mortal Engines’ is So Hollow It Echoes

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This review was originally published for UW Film Club and has since been republished here with the author’s permission.

The book is better than the film. The film is better than the book. A debate as old as adapted material’s existence. The newest contender stepping into the ring to stir the pot on this debate is Christian Rivers’ movie adaptation of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines: a YA novel about moving cities in the post-apocalypse. I haven’t read the book, and frankly don’t plan on it, but I can tell you, without a doubt, it’s better than the movie. In fact, it’s probably leaps and bounds better because what we got with this movie adaptation is just a hap hazard construction of narrative plot points to facilitate a steam-punk, CGI fantasy film. 

Set decades after the “60 Minute War” that scorned the face of the Earth, society has taken to mobile cities to survive.  The leader of London, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), moves the city out west in a desperate attempt to find smaller cities that can feed the larger one. In the mix is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar): a young rebel who attempts to assassinate Valentine in order to avenge her mother. After being thwarted, she is led on a perilous journey that uncovers a campaign that plans to use ancient tech for malicious purposes.

Let’s do away with the positive first and give credit where credit is due. The VFX work is great. WETA did a great job taking this highly improbable premise and making it not look entirely laughable. The sense of scale with these cities is astounding. Paired with movement, these cities look like nimble glaciers crossing vast terrains; the opening scene, and perhaps the best scene, shows just how well executed, designed, and animated these behemoths are. If anything, the film is interesting to look at.

Production design is equally well matched, but not entirely given its fair shake. The film travels from one location to another at break neck pace, not only making the film far too brisk, but also shorting the talents of the art department. One clear violation and example of this is when Shaw and crew are brought to a secluded, slave-trading, swamp town; the locale is an interesting bastion of lawlessness in this fantasy world that would of made for some nice commentary on the world itself, but which gets the short end of the stick because the film goes there for one brief reason, and after the plot point is delivered, it’s back to the traveling odyssey. This happens again with a water prison city, an air balloon rebel city, and a stationary wall city. Imagine being in the art department, working for months on creating these cities, and then having the film gloss over them with a shanty narrative. Probably doesn’t feel too good.

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Part of the reason why the film is so technically sound can be attributed to the fact that Christian Rivers’ prior film credits are with the art or visual effects departments. Mortal Engines is his first directed feature, and it shows. His talents with the visual components and translating those components to the big screen are solid, but sadly, one lone contribution does not a film make.  

Narratively there are so many things wrong with this film. It’s painfully clear that the book fleshed out its lore better than the film and that scenes were cut for the sake of time. It’s a fantasy film so it needs to have a well-realized world, but there is no lore to explain anything on screen. I have so many questions about this film that were never explained, and I feel like they’re pretty fair questions. First of all, why do these cities need to be moving? In the film, there are pro-mobile and “anti-tractionists” individuals which is so baffling to me because any rational human would just stay still. The film never never tells us why the pro-mobile people insist on moving all the time. Just stay in one place. (To answer one of the film’s most pressing concerns, I had to go Wikipedia to find the answer. Turns out, pro-mobile people move to avoid natural disasters brought about by the 60 Minute War, but unless I missed something, they’re no where to be found in the film.) Why is Shrike (an emotionless robot played who raises Hester after her mother dies by Stephen Lang) chasing Hester? Hester abandons him after learning  Valentine is within striking distance, evidently causing the robot to lose his cool, but why can’t Hester just say, “I need to avenge my mom. I’ll be right back. Don’t freak out”? Instead the robot just gets angry at abandonment and pursues killing her mercilessly because of it. I mean, I guess that makes sense … but why is the robot so hell-bent on this? Why does Hester fall in love with Tom (an artifact collector played by Robert Sheehan)? He’s insufferable to no end and almost gets her killed on multiple occasions? How in the world can he, in any capacity, be the love interest? I’m so baffled by this.

And on and on and on it goes until the credits roll. Everything in this fantasy world is underdeveloped to a problematic degree. I spent two hours watching this imaginary fantasy world be depicted, but got none of the foundation that solidifies it. You know those chocolate molded bunnies sold around Easter where it’s just the shell of chocolate and it’s all hollow inside? That’s the physical embodiment of this film except way less satisfying. It’s remarkably hollow. So much so you can hear all the potential rattle around and echo inside the emptied out carcass of the original novel. 

1.5/5 STARS