If there’s anything to take away from this absolute train wreck of a film its that you’ve got to applaud Warner Brothers for having the courage to take a stab at this franchise. I mean, cities on wheels? It almost lands in the unadaptable camp, but shockingly there are components in this film that it gets right, almost enough to convince me that it could’ve been done right. However, for every win this film gets, there’s five losses to come alongside it. These losses range from story, to character, to tone and beyond – the scale of this film is inherently massive and like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, almost every component needed to excel. Mortal Engines does perhaps 10% of its components correctly.
Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by the past; massive predator cities on wheels consume one another for resources, semiconductor technology has been forgotten, from radios to computers, and how they operate is as mysterious as Greek fire. In this analog world of cogs, engines, and hydraulic systems people believe in the laws of the jungle, the strong consume the weak and the towns that are eaten are forced to migrate into that parent city. This “consumption” involves a giant city on wheels chasing a smaller city on wheels, hooking it and reeling it in. Ridiculous, right? As the film opens the concept of it all shows it might have potential by skirting that line between fun and silly, but that line vanishes the moment the first character is introduced. As it becomes clear what kind of movie it’s going to be.
After the basic premise of the city’s function is displayed we’re quickly introduced to a young woman named Hester Shaw, a girl that seeks revenge for the death of her mother. Hester is the prototypical damaged girl that survived the wasteland. She meets a Londoner called Tom, a young man who likes flying, history, and gadgets. Both Hester and Tom are forced to venture together to somewhere? and face a barrage of dangers as the villainous leader of London pursues them. Cities on wheels, zombie robots, and laser beams; if it already sounds like a sensory overload that’s because it is.
Everybody entering this film is aware the concept is silly; films like Pacific Rim (2013) bask in the scale of its ludicrous premise to attract audiences, this is essentially what has been attempted here. But unlike Pacific Rim (2013) this film is not quite as successful in its endeavor. This was disheartening as the story itself was ripe with potential; the concept of the strong and the weak in Darwinian theory was referred to but never explored, cultures consuming one another, borders and walls, all of this is chewed up and spat out in the most basic form possible – any ambition here is nothing more than surface level. This film needed to embrace its silliness or ground itself with engaging characters. Plain and simple, the performances did not and could not excel with that script at hand. There are moments in this film that are genuinely funny, whether it was intentional or not. However, it is reasonable to say that I expected something better out of the writers of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, to say the least.
Visually we’re given some rather grand and detailed sets, this mix of practical and CGI environments help avert the eyes to somewhere of interest. Scale is one of the few areas where this film excels, as the camera-work gives you a sense of the magnitude of the cities. Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) is an example of a film losing a sense of scale with its passive shots that offer no reference of size. On the other hand there seems to be this desperate need to make each character appear physically unique, whether it’s a red scarf, Matrix glasses, or a trench coat – the film holds its visual aesthetic in higher regard than everything else. The quality of these visuals were strong for the budget it had, and its use of practical effects helped build some degree of realism in a film with mediocre world-building.
Director Christian Rivers is given full command of London and he steers it straight into a wall. Mortal Engines does some minor things right and it’s visually impressive for the budget at hand. As the film closes you are greeted with an ending that doesn’t set itself up for a sequel, a clean conclusion to this film helped prevent it from sinking to lower depths. Any film can be executed correctly if you have the right team, this just wasn’t the case. Despite driving forward some impressive visuals, Mortal Engines runs on crude fuel, puttering away with painful tropes and mindless storytelling.