Mortal Engines (2018) Review

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Mortal Engines (2018)

~Review by Grawlix (December 2018)

Mortal Engines begins with what may be one of the most thrilling first 15 minutes in recent cinema history. Unfortunately, the full movie is two hours. After establishing a promising setting and putting some neat ideas in play, the movie seemingly has no idea how to build upon them, spending half of its remaining runtime flailing away with tired cliches before finally throwing up its hands and doing what it seems that every Sci-Fi/Fantasy flick does when they unexpectedly run out of ideas: aping Star Wars. It feels like I say this a lot, about how uninspired movies default to ripping off Star Wars, but hey, it’s not my fault these writers are lazy.

So, let me try to set the scene as best I can without spoiling. In the distant past, the shape of the earth is literally rearranged by a war that involved weapons of mass destruction so powerful that mankind has had to effectively rediscover technology all over again. During this period of redevelopment they’ve resolved to not repeat the mistakes of the past, but there’s always at least one prick (played by the always game Hugo Weaving) who just can’t leave well enough alone. After an attempt on said prick’s life (due to a personal vendetta) fails, the would-be assassin (Hera Hilmar) is cast adrift into the unforgiving wasteland along with a hapless schlub (Robert Sheehan) who blundered into the wrong place at the wrong time and now knows too much. After making discoveries that demonstrate the stakes are far higher than a personal blood feud, the pair, at length, link up with a cadre of resistance/freedom fighters and… well, you can probably take it from here.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also some business about towns and cities being on wheels now. You’d be forgiven for thinking this whole idea would be a bigger deal than it actually ends up being. After all, that is what the title of the movie refers to, right? And if you’ve seen the trailers or commercials of the movie, then you’ve probably seen the shots of London, the titanic tank-tracked city/juggernaut that pursues smaller vehicles like a whale shark bearing down on a patch of krill. Well, virtually everything in the trailer comes from those first fifteen minutes. And, let me stress again, they’re a glorious fifteen minutes, but after they’re over and the movie has shot its bolts, it enters into whatever the cinematic equivalent of a refractory period is for about 90 minutes until the, er, climax, when these ideas kinda, sorta become relevant again. To be honest, unless I missed something, it’s not even really clear what the real advantage of having a mobile city is. London, we are told, has to keep on the move in order to hunt down smaller machines in order to dismantle them for parts and fuel so London can… keep moving. Seems to me like a lot of the problems here could be solved by just picking a promising patch of land and dropping anchor, y’know, kind of like the way real cities work, but I guess doing that would only give us a less punchy title and a less interesting opening reel.

One thing that can’t be denied is that the movie looks great. The general aesthetic could best be described as Mad Max meets Metropolis, but filtered through a steampunk lens. It’s clear that the new world is being built back up from fragments of the old one and everything from the sets to the props has a grimy but functional elegance. The technology regression means that swords and knives are viable self defense options, which adds a welcome variety to the action scenes without being contrived. Later on the films seems to draw influences from video games like Jade Empire and Crimson Skies, which looks cool even if their ultimate use isn’t all that original. There’s even a subplot involving a zombie/terminator type bounty hunter that gives the movie an excuse to blow a few more things up during the otherwise fairly saggy middle portion. Unfortunately, like the main plot, this minor arc starts promising, but dramatically fails to stick the landing, and then has the gall to play up an emotional payoff that it doesn’t come close to earning. It is different, though, I’ll give it that.

Reflecting on Mortal Engines as I write this review, I keep coming back to words like, “adequate”, “satisfactory”, “tolerable”. It’s one of those movies that isn’t bad in a vacuum, but gets worse by comparison the more movies you’ve watched. The main cast is just a bit too large and not enough of them have enough personality or distinguishing features to be memorable (I will give credit to Hester (the assassin) sporting facial scars that actually look like scars instead of overwrought beauty marks). The plotting is… well, it’s reliable, but even a slightly seasoned movie watcher will encounter nothing they haven’t seen before and almost nothing that can’t be predicted ahead of time. The visual effects are capable of giving a stunning sense of scale, when they want to, I just wish they wanted to more often. And the action is solid, but hardly breaks any new ground.

Probably the best comparison I can make to Mortal Engines is 2006’s Eragon, another movie that had decent action and effects and initially promising concepts, before it tried to actually develop its plot and the audience realized that it was just Star Wars with some names changed. I’ve never read the Mortal Engines novel (just like I’ve never read Eragon) but it seems to me that if the movie is an accurate representation of the book, then the producers (Peter Jackson among them) should be chastised for thinking a single original gimmick could sustain a whole film, and if it isn’t then the author needs a better contract lawyer ASAP.   

Final Grade: C+

Mortal Engines steps on the gas early, and has a promising first lap, but ultimately stalls before following a very familiar pace car all the way to the finish line. The scenery’s nice, though.


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