Cinematic Releases: Mortal Engines (2018) - Reviewed

Peter Jackson’s involvement in a movie pretty much guarantees it will be interesting to look at. Whether his work is great (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or not so good (The Hobbit trilogy) you can be sure he will not skimp on the visual spectacle. The latest epic to carry his name is the YA novel adaptation Mortal Engines, which he produced/co-wrote (it was directed by Christian Rivers). The design can be quite awesome and there are several exciting action sequences. Unfortunately, the plot and characters bring it closer to the not so good pile. It is so derivative that it wastes a strong effort by the effects department. But, one of the reasons to go to the movies is to see things we have never seen before, so for that, at least, it is worthwhile.

Mortal Engines is set in a world where civilization as we know it has been destroyed. Now, most people live in mobile cities. The story starts in London, a monstrosity rolling through Europe. Things get complicated when an attempt is made on the life of one of the city’s most powerful men, setting up an adventure that will reshape the future.

There is absolutely nothing surprising or original going on in this story. It plays like “if Mad Max were a YA novel.” Though I do not want to neglect all of its other obvious influences which include seemingly every major sci-fi or fantasy franchise from the last 40 years, from Star Wars to Harry Potter. Its plot is not very well-developed, but the bigger problem is the characters. They come off as cliffs-notes versions of iconic characters. 

There is a mild crack at bringing depth to the protagonists. Revenge-minded Hester has an intriguing backstory and she is introduced with the potential to be a complex underdog action hero. Sadly, she is saddled with naïve Tom, who inadvertently gets dragged into her journey. He is a bland audience surrogate, the person with little knowledge who asks questions so viewers can hear the answers. Eventually, the relationship between him and Hester begins to negate a lot of the interest the story could have generated with her character.

Thankfully, Mortal Engines looks great. London is a magnificent city-sized vehicle. The wide-shots of it, showing all of its various levels stacked on top of each other, are tremendous. We are never really given a true sense of the layout, such as where businesses are, where everyone lives and what the culture is there. However, the visualization of the moving city is neat. The smaller, poorer, towns are cool as well, even if I did not understand how so many people fit in them. Each of them are unique, with their own personalities. I especially enjoyed the one that crawled along the Earth like a caterpillar. There are also some cleverly designed airplanes and a city that seems to be hanging in the air. This stuff is the reason to see this movie.

Rivers and his team use them for a few engaging action scenes that would have been more interesting if I actually cared about what was at stake. There are a couple of solid chases and a moderately compelling subplot featuring a Terminator-esque creature. Mortal Engines works in individual moments and shots. While they do not end up adding up to much, it gives an idea of what could have been if a fresher story was applied to this concept. If you do choose to see it, it may look even more impressive in IMAX. Or wait to watch it in your home theater so you can see the good stuff and fast-forward past all the dull parts.

--Ben Pivoz