In the age of gritty reboots and sexed-up remakes, we have reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to fantasy blockbusters, especially those based on YA novels. Nothing has managed to grab the crowns worn by the Harry Potter and Hunger Games movies, though franchises like Divergent and The Maze Runner have tried. Even the Fantastic Beasts series, spearheaded by J.K. Rowling, hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of the original.
Mortal Engines comes the closest. The fantasy film, the big-screen brainchild of Lord of the Rings team Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, is unabashedly inventive and bright in a way that’s highly unusual in a post-The Dark Knight landscape. And though it’s ultimately tripped up by recycled storylines, paper-thin characters and laughably flat dialogue, there are so many eccentric beats along the way that it’s still a thrill ride until the very end.
Based on novels by Philip Reeve, the film’s version of a post-apocalyptic future posits the reign of “traction cities,” metropolises mounted on wheels à la Howl’s Moving Castle. They roam wild, engaging in a system called Municipal Darwinism, in which bigger cities capture and essentially consume smaller cities for resources, and are blocked off from “static settlements” (exactly what it says on the tin) by an insurmountable wall.
Whenever Mortal Engines focuses on the idiosyncrasies of its universe, it’s magnificent. The first 20 minutes, which showcase city chases that play like Mad Max: Fury Road on shrooms, are near perfect. Giant metal beasts tear through the landscape, and subsequently each other, leaving massive tracks in their wake. The sheer sense of scale that director Christian Rivers is able to invoke is glorious.
The human element of the film doesn’t measure up. Mortal Engines introduces Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a citizen of this on-the-road world out to avenge her mother’s death. Hester quickly finds herself fighting for the world’s survival as well, as the roaming city of London shores up its resources to stage an attack on the wall and devour the settlements on the other side.
The emphasis placed on the mechanics of everything going on around the characters means they’re never given any time to develop in a meaningful way. They fulfill tropes instead, leaving the film teetering at a precarious point between boring and ironic, goofy fun, with a rare few scenes managing to push the needle into actual fun. (One moment in particular so clearly apes the most iconic twist in modern film history that it’s almost a pity that the dialogue wasn’t cribbed word for word.)
Mortal Engines feels like a Fabergé egg that’s filled like a Cadbury egg. The outer structure and design knock your socks off; what’s inside is junk, but also has its own pleasures. Hilmar is a perfectly capable lead, if a little weighed down by the blandness of her companion, Tom (Robert Sheehan, styled like a minor Final Fantasy protagonist). And Jihae, as the rebel leader Anna Fang (who embodies the saying “the higher the hair, the closer to God”), exudes an effortless cool that, again, is nearly subsumed by the script.
The only cast member who escapes scot-free is Hugo Weaving as the film’s villain, Thaddeus Valentine. Though some aspects of Valentine’s character are sympathetic, he is still blatantly evil, and the Bela Lugosi-esque eyebrow acting Weaving employs is in tune with the film’s key. He stakes his claim as the film’s highlight given how completely committed he is to selling lines like “in the great game of survival, this is checkmate” or delivering spiels on ridiculous-sounding tech with utter seriousness. There’s very little revealed about any character’s motivations (besides Hester’s), be they power, love, revenge or survival, and Weaving embraces the material accordingly. He’s matched only by Stephen Lang’s relatively brief appearance as an undead warrior, but that particular character is such a delight that it’s best not to spoil anything further.
There’s not enough plot to fuel Mortal Engines, and the number of problems that could be solved with a simple conversation grow astronomical, but the sheer adrenaline that the movie manages to juice out of its basic premise goes a long way. It’s a world that allows for a lot of weirdness, including a detour into a human meat market, the introduction of an insect-inspired car that hints at the variety of traction city designs that must exist, and the faint sense of metatextual cultural currency that’s inherent to the traction city version of London leaving Europe.
It’s not a problem that the film’s sense of imagination doesn’t stretch to its characters until the movie starts to buckle under the weight of what’s expected of modern blockbusters, both in terms of neatly wrapping up the plot and injecting the proceedings with a little darkness. On top of that, while the city chases are impeccably staged, the human fights are visually incomprehensible, which sends the film’s finale stumbling — equal attention must be paid to the lumbering city of London and to the comparatively miniscule people clawing at each other upon it.
But in case it wasn’t evident from the constant qualifiers, there’s still so much to like about Mortal Engines that it’s difficult to dismiss. I would gladly have watched hours of Municipal Darwinism at work, and whatever qualms I may have with the characters and plot are motes of dust in comparison to the sheer joy I felt watching London lumber after a tiny mining town.
It’s also impossible to deny that the whole film is something of a gamble, as its premise is strange (to say the least), and with the possible exception of Weaving, the cast consists of actors likely unknown to a mainstream audience. More importantly, sequences like the chase that opens the film and a brief interlude upon an airborne city — moments unshackled from popular expectations — give it the glimmer of great fantasy adventure films like the Rings trilogy and Stardust. Mortal Engines may hit a few too many rote beats, but it stands apart from most of its contemporaries.