The success of The Hunger Games series has spawned a wave of dystopian Young Adult novel adaptations, and to be perfectly honest, I am not exactly the biggest fan of the genre, as it often adheres to a set of formulae. Author Dana Schwartz’s parody twitter account @DystopianYA (it is wonderful, go check it out!) sums it up succinctly in her tweets: heavy-handed social commentary on class, arbitrary factions, love triangle, and the inexperienced teenage protagonist being the key to the downfall of a totalitarian regime. Now that the YA giants are reaching their narrative conclusions, will Mortal Engines be able to rejuvenate the genre with its unique world? The answer: not quite.
The world we know has been decimated by a cataclysmic event known only as the “Sixty Minute War”. Earth was poisoned by the very same quantum weapons that ravaged it. The surviving humans now live on traction cities—mobile settlements on giant wheels and tracks that roam the wasteland. Small cities scavenge and trade, while big cities engage in high-speed chases after their smaller competitors for resources and cheap labor to exploit. Mortal Engines sounds like supersized steampunk Mad Max. Indeed, the film begins with a voiceover that would blend in perfectly with the rest of the Mad Max franchise, and the speeding, harpoon-shooting fortresses were accompanied by a bombastic soundtrack from Tom Holkenborg, the very same composer who scored Fury Road.
Pulled into the traction city of London along with the mining town she boarded, our protagonist Hester Shaw’s (Hera Hilmar) first action in London is to avenge her mother by assassinating Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Hester’s dagger connects with Thaddeus, but historian Tom Natsworthy stops her from delivering the fatal blow. Hester escapes the city via a trash chute, and Tom gets pushed off by “The People’s Man” Thaddeus because he suspects the historian has heard too much from the confrontation. How anyone can trust Valentine—who primarily spends his time hinting ominously at his plan—is beyond me, but it is a story arc which his other daughter along with various unmemorable characters must go through.
Mortal Engines does not have a good script, but I’ll get back to that later. The young couple meets new friends—agents of the Anti-Traction League—and new foes—slavers, cannibals, a relentless terminator-esque cyborg named Shrike (no relation to the killing machine from Hyperion Cantos)—along the way. The ragtag group (of aviators) must come together to stop the moving fortress outfitted with the ultimate energy weapon (helmed by British English speakers in uniforms no less) before it destroys a peace-loving nation. The final climax is a steampunk remake of A New Hope complete with a sword duel between the protagonist’s mentor figure and evil father.
At first, I was delighted by the freshness of Mortal Engines—a heroine who is not the Special™, the cutdown on faction-talk, and no tedious history lessons chock full of self-serious naming conventions. But as the story moves forward, I began to realize these may not be the signs of a successful adaptation, but rather the signs of details lost by clumsy storytelling. A brief glimpse at the novel’s Wikipedia entry shows that the original plot required very little streamlining. Yet the film fumbles at developing the world in an organic fashion. Every action-downtime has a flashback or two, and characters blurt out backstories unprompted. On top of that, the twists and turns of the story are cliché ridden. Mortal Engines banks on familiarity to achieve a working story—the end result is a predictable and bland tale.
The story feels like it is going through the motions, but the visual effects did not let the “From the Filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit” line present in all of Mortal Engines’s marketing materials down. The CGI brings traction cities to life on the big screen with a phenomenal impression of great scale and weight, which infuses the purely computer-generated scenes with a sense of physicality uncommon in modern CG-heavy blockbusters. Both land and aerial vehicular combat are gorgeous and competently blocked. The city-hunting cold-open is among my favorite action sequences in cinema this year. The live-action battles, on the other hand, are much less impressive; the mediocre choreography and choppy editing failed to excite.
Mortal Engines is also the latest proof of the truism: “good action scenes require emotional investment.” The film is teeming with forgettable characters played by charisma-free actors, and it sucked out all tension from the screening on several occasions. It is most evident when characters heroically sacrifice themselves for the cause. Fortunately, Hilmar, the only actor in the film with screen presence beside Weaving, was able to carry her quest for vengeance with a silent intensity; the piercing eyes were not quite Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, but she kept me engaged. I think this situation sums up my thought of Mortal Engines: there is always something to like about the movie, but the movie makes it really hard to fall in love with it. The highlights of this movie prevent me from condemning it, but it certainly isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination. Mortal Engines is perfectly serviceable as a two-hour entertainment with friends and family, but I feel a little sad about its wasted potential.