Directed by: Christian Rivers
Runtime: 128 minutes
Sometimes going into the screening of a new film with a sense of epistemological ignorance can reap tangible benefits. In today’s media-saturated world, it’s all too easy to stumble across production gossip, juicy spoilers and the unwashed/unwanted opinions of the masses. On the internet, it seems, everyone’s a critic (also, the irony of writing that sentence, in a film review, on the internet, is not lost on me). Walking into the premiere for the fantasy/sci-fi blockbuster Mortal Engines, I actively tried to know as little information as possible and went in mostly blind. I had seen a brief, one-minute TV spot trailer for the film—only because YouTube had unceremoniously thrust it upon me multiple times—and from this, I also knew that Peter Jackson was involved somehow. That’s it. Now the real question is: did any of this willful ignorance help the experience in any way? Well… kind of.
Marking the directorial debut of Christian Rivers and based on the first novel in Philip Reeve’s young adult series of the same name, Mortal Engines is a pulpy adventure film set in a post-apocalyptic future, where steampunk cities are mounted on giant wheels and caterpillar tracks, roaming the cataclysmic ruins of Earth and preying on each other in a never-ending struggle for valuable resources. The main plot follows two central protagonists: Tom Natsworthy (played by a sanguine Robert Sheehan), an apprentice historian from the lower tiers of the London predator city, who is forced out of his home and aligns himself with a resistance movement known as the ‘Anti-Traction League’; and Hester Shaw (played by Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), a disfigured, would-be assassin with an axe-to-grind against the film’s central antagonist, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). The story then accelerates through numerous locales, set-pieces and minor B- and C-plot threads in a race towards the inevitable climactic battle.
With the film’s screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson diverging significantly from Reeve’s original novel as a source, there’s a lot of ground to cover here and plenty of info to dump. As a result, the film suffers from a case of ‘hackneyed-dialogue-as-hasty-exposition’ and world-building in the form of CGI window dressing. Strictly, on a performance level, everyone appears to be having fun on set, hamming it up where necessary, and Weaving delivers another deliciously camp villain in the vein of Captain America’s Red Skull (this time with a full nose). There’s a romance subplot that was likely more developed in the original novel (having not read the book series, this is merely a tacit assumption), yet in the film, it’s massively undersold and essentially consists of one character saying to another, “You love this person now.” At a narrative level, the Bildungsroman or ‘coming of age’ tale is certainly a tried-and-true formula, especially in the novel form, however, this is where the Mortal Engines as film adaptation breaks down. In trying to race to the finish, the film rapidly shifts gears numerous times, to varying degrees of tonal success and ultimately stalls mid-way through.
There’s a suspension of disbelief that comes with any sci-fi or fantasy story: James Cameron’s Avatar took the time to ground the alien biology of Pandora and the Na’vi; Disney’s John Carter adaption had the benefit of a Martian landscape and a mid-nineteenth century setting to justify its particular eccentricities. Now, neither of these examples are great films in their own right, however, they at least went to the effort of explaining how things came to be diegetically and how this motivates the characters of the story. In a world where iPhones exist as hallowed relics and people still eat Twinkies, the viewer of Mortal Engines is asked to believe that this future, out of all possible futures, is the one that eventuated; however, we’ve never really given a reason as to how or why this is the case. With only a two-hour runtime and a litany of unnecessary characters and side stories, Mortal Engines reduces nearly every contrived scenario to some hand-wavy, techno-babble explanation, leaving the viewer scratching their head and mumbling “Yeah, okay…”
Given that Rivers has a long career in the film industry, working as a storyboard artist, visual effects supervisor and special effects technician, alongside collaborating with Jackson on every major project from the last 25 years (including The Frighteners, King Kong, The Lovely Bones and The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series), there’s a certain degree of competency he brings to the director’s chair. The slower, more dramatic moments are delivered with suitable restraint and poignancy, while the larger, action-oriented set-pieces throttle along with a variety of fights, bombastic explosions and a sweeping mise en scène that relies heavily on green-screen visuals. Despite these achievements, the cumulative effect of the film’s grander story still comes up short, feeling like an assembled highlight reel of arguably poorer films: a scene with a gigantic, spider-like ocean prison that recalls the Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West, sans catchy theme song; numerous martial arts moments and gunfights that echo the shaky cam kinetics of Suckerpunch; CGI-heavy aerial dogfights paralleling the lacklustre Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (remember that one?). There’s even a third act set around the hidden city-state of Shang Guo—which mashes together a bunch of Asian and Eastern cultures—that is, unfortunately, reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s great cinematic trainwreck, The Last Airbender. And yes, I sat through that pile of shit once upon a time. Mortal Engines also tries desperately to deliver deep, thematic resonance on topical issues like class, the dangers of technology, evolutionary Darwinism and colonial conquest, but in breezing over these issues so casually, the film fails to fully commit to any one of them.
If you’re after a fun, switch-my-brain-off summer movie just in time for Christmas, you could certainly do worse than Mortal Engines. It’s visually entertaining, competently directed and hits all the narrative beats in a conservative runtime. However, the film’s main crime is being wholly predictable and, as a result, largely forgettable. It’s just hard to care about a barely fleshed-out world and bland characters so thin that they’d disappear if you looked at them sideways. About 20 minutes into the premiere screening, a woman next to me festooned in a pair of fabulous steampunk goggles got up and left the theatre never to return. Other reasons notwithstanding, if you can’t win over the devoted cosplay crowd, then perhaps it’s time to admit that your film has run out of steam… punk.