Review: Mortal Engines
History is written by the victors. History is worth collecting, through all its broken pieces. History is a currency. That’s the broad message of the deeply fascinating Mortal Engines, the movie about cities eating other cities in a steampunk, post-apocalyptic future. Audiences find themselves on a journey of epic proportions, told from a relatively safe storytelling perspective.
Mortal Engines has plastered Peter Jackson’s name all over its marketing campaign. In many ways, it has the potential to live up to the namesake that blessed us with Middle-Earth nearly two decades ago. Some issues that stop it from being more than the sum of its parts are, sadly, out of its control. It’s a matter of timing, as the Young Adult Fantasy genre boom of the late 2000’s ended with little fanfare. The Divergent series never even got its final film and The Maze Runner concluded with a resounding “fine” at the box office (note: this writer was actually a fan of the trilogy).
Mortal Engines is lucky enough to have a few things going for it. For one, Mortal Engines is just a cool title. It implies the kind of grand scope that we crave from our blockbusters. It’s steampunk influenced, a subgenre of fantasy that has flirted with big budget genres before. Giant mobile cities battle one another for dominance and often devour the victims. Yes, you read that correctly. As if Miyazaki’s Moving Castle film ever made it into live-action, it would probably come across like this. Only, here the film’s vehicular nature doesn’t so much endow wonder as much as highlight missed marks.
It’s hard to fault a movie like this. The ambitious ideas and concepts hop around without much in the way of technical prowess or confident direction. Christian Rivers, primarily a VFX artist prior to this directorial debut, does manage to entertain with the ridiculously geeky fantasy concepts, structures towering over characters, gears shifting and surging in all manner of intricacies. Perhaps the most enticing elements are the ones which directly address relatable conflicts in class and imperialism. As London extends its reach, devouring lesser civilizations, the inhabitants of those destroyed cities are offered as refugees, though families may find themselves separated for a time. In this weird, minor-blip-on-most-people’s-radar of a genre adventure, we have a reminder that merciful fascist empires are still fascist empires. It’s an idea that drives the picture in fits and spurts, never told well enough outside of dialogue components. The visuals are nice and inventive, but they do nothing to help audiences understand the story from an emotional component.
Speaking of emotions, the characters fundamentally should work in some capacity for a story like this. Focusing on characters who are intrinsically tied to the narrative of London (reminder: the city that eats other cities) and the conflicts brewing around its devastation should streamline the story for the better. But it feels hollow. For a concept as potentially refreshingly weird as this, Mortal Engines finds itself shackled to simplicity. It’s less interested in the bizarro construction of the world and its history and makes sure to hit certain beats of baseline story structure. There’s a reason why stories follow three-act structures, because they’re efficient and easy to follow. It’s the rare big blockbuster that needed to be even bigger. With a name like Peter Jackson, one of the last filmmakers to even understand the structure of film epics, the simplified nature of Mortal Engines feels like a softball pitch.
Director Christian Rivers seems to have his heart in the right place when it comes to filmmaking. Flourishes and moments inspire confidence that his career may be one to watch going forward. A film with steampunk imagery, robot assassins and Hugo Weaving, Mortal Engines will likely get devoured at the box office this film season. But if you end up checking it out, you end up watching a movie with cities eating other cities. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.