The foremost thing on my mind going into Mortal Engines was “Has Peter Jackson been broken by his loveless shackling to doing The Hobbit out of pure obligation.” Within 2 minutes of the pre-title sequence I was happily lost in the steampunk meets Mad Max world Mortal Engines brings to life and those worries evaporated.
I like to know as little as possible when going into a movie, embarrassingly I knew so little, I thought Peter Jackson was directing Mortal Engines up until the credits rolled and I discovered it had been directed by a protege of Peter’s, Christian Rivers, who has worked on his movies since Brain Dead.
Right off Mortal Engines does run a bit rough and has high Ks but this is nowhere in the same league as the sawdust in the gearbox, wound back speedo and cut springs on Fantastic Beasts 2.
Mortal Engines is home grown being filmed in Wellington, NZ with many familiar local actors padding out the cast but it also brings a number of talented newcomers.
Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw is the films lead and for a relative unknown, manages to carry the film’s narrative, emotions and action without coming across as seeming forced but Hera is reaching the limit of her skills in some scenes.
Robert Sheehan (Mortal Instruments no relation) as Tom Natsworthy. Tom is the audience surrogate and is naive to survival in the outside world due to his being an apprentice historical archaeologist and a bit of a nerd.
Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine is in full agent Smith mode is always entertaining even when he is chewing the scenery but is a bit one note.
Jihae, looking like a character from the Aeon Flux cartoons is a newcomer Korean Popstar crossing over to acting.
She takes the lead as Anna Fang who nails the action and martial arts scenes shes in, although her acting chops aren’t quite Lady Gaga level but this role worked well for her skills.
Leila George as Katherine Valentine, daughter of Thaddeus Valentine although a decent actor is left being the Scooby-Doo style plot detective and it feels like some of her scenes didn’t make it to the final cut.
Stephen Lang ( Avatar) as Shrike is pretty much the Gollum of this movie, he is in equal parts terrifying and sympathetic and has some of the best character scenes in the movie.
Set thousands of years in the future where man made disasters have broken the planet, cities are now mobile preying on the leftovers of other mobile cities for fuel and resources. It is a bit vague on why the cities have to stay on the move and don’t stay put maybe it’s in the book but it’s not in the movie.
Hester Shaw, motivated by revenge sets into motion a series of events which will involve the remaining inhabitants of the mobile City of London, various locations and factions, her past and the power hungry Thaddeus Valentine. Mortal Engines in broad strokes follows a lot of the same Heroes Journey points as LOTR, Star Wars and Harry Potter which makes it feel derivative.
Mortal Engines does borrow heavily from other sources in its style and tropes, this isn’t a deal-breaker, but the opening borrows heavily from Mad Max Fury Road right down to it’s score having the same composer. Later in the film there are moments lifted straight from Star Wars A New Hope and the later Matrix movies.
It also tries to pack so much in I kept expecting half way through for it to pull a smash cut to black and “Continued next year in Mortal Engines 2”, this also falls into some of the editing being a little too brisk, some of it just needs to breathe a moment longer. The physical action sequences could have done with being shot wider and cut less, giving more context visually.
A lot of the scenes seem very over-lit which makes the sumptuous visuals look a bit flat and shot for tv (which means very little these days with Game of Thrones etc raising the bar). A darker contrast and color correction would have helped give it some visual depth. The quality of the performances at times feels like it needed a couple more takes to get right and the acting needed more dialing in.
Hugo Weaving goes a bit bonkers almost unnecessarily going out of his way to do evil things which seems to be a surprise to everyone else in his life, as if all this time he’s just been a secret asshole.
At times it feels like if it had been let off the leash a little more with the adult in the “young adult” it could have been at lot more wild.
The Good Stuff
The costumes, sets, design, visuals make this a real visual treat but the curiosity generated by the world and characters does back up the style.
One of the amazingly refreshing things Mortal Engines doesn’t do is spoon feed you exposition and treat you like an idiot that needs every bit of backstory explained for them. It leaves you craving more about the world and its characters and their shared history. All of the locations and evolved cultures feel developed with a sense of history to them.
It’s colour pallet is bright and vibrant, other directors would have been tempted to desaturate it and leave the world with 50 shades of shit brown like so many other post apocalyptic movies have done before.
‘The emotional moments really do hit and one of the biggest ones is surprisingly from the secondary antagonist for a large part of the film.
For a CGI heavy film it doesn’t feel as fatiguing as say Transformers or any of DC’s recent outings.
All of the locations feel fully realized and leave you wanting more.
Family sized Mad Max fun. If it had leaned into the madness and worked on some solid performances and pacing it could have been a classic, but what we get is still a fantastic cinematic achievement. I selfishly want this movie to be a success so I can explore more of this world onscreen but know it will probably get eaten by a much bigger film releasing over the Christmas season.
It’s full of tropes, which are admittedly clique but there’s a reason so many good stories drink from the same well.
This is the closest to a Bioshock, Dishonored, Warhammer 40k or Fallout movie done right we are going to get.
You’ll like it if you enjoy:
The worlds of Dune, Bioshock, Dishonored, Warhammer 40k or Fallout.
Stunning visuals and world-building.
Skip it if you:
Are after Oscar worthy performances.
Aren’t into science-fantasy or Steampunk.
Want something entirely original.
Expect a smooth film with no bumps.