Mortal Engines Is a Layered Throwback

The big selling point of Mortal Engines is steampunk. The word of mouth isn’t about character arcs or philosophical concepts; it’s about the visuals of enormous cities that roam a shattered world.

If you think that hook is enough to sustain your interest for two hours, you probably won’t be disappointed. The “traction cities” that constitute the remains of human civilization are beautifully realized, and director Christian Rivers’ swoop-intensive visuals work great for shots that are outside and high up. But both the visuals and the story break down when the characters actually have to emote.

Mortal Engines weaves a number of plot threads, at times struggling to keep track. Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) is an archaeologist-junkman on the enormous traction city of London, which is introduced chasing down a much smaller city and swallowing it whole. One of the people aboard the smaller city is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who uses her forcible introduction to London for an assassination attempt on politician/mad scientist Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Valentine, in turn, believes the era of “municipal Darwinism” is at an end, and imagines a darker, more potent future for London.

Meanwhile, Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George) suspects he’s not the man he says he is. Meanwhile meanwhile, a cyborg zombie named Shrike (Stephen Lang) is after Hester for his own obscure purposes. Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, Anna Fang (Jihae) ALSO wants Hester for her own obscure purposes.

If everyone has plans for Hester, it seems like she has no plans for herself. Her characterization initially hangs on the one note of revenge; later, she discovers the idea of love. When we see her past life, in dreams and flashbacks, it consists of unmodulated sadness.

However textureless and dour Hester is, though, Tom is worse. When the two of them are ejected from London and forced to work together, he repeatedly takes it upon himself to be The Man in situations. This never goes well for him, but these failures are never insightful enough to be funny, either. The middle parts of the story just sleepwalk forward.

The visuals aren’t always well-integrated to the events either. An early exception is a scene where Tom chases Hester through a city block that’s being destroyed by enormous power tools. More often, you get a good visual, then some talking; repeat. And there’s a LOT of story to talk through.

Maybe a few of the plot threads should have been left behind in the book Mortal Engines is adapted from, but they also offer some of the best of the movie’s mixed bag. Shrike’s story is arguably the most extraneous, but it’s also the most straightforward, and goddamn is he fun to watch. Lang, made up beyond recognition in prosthetics and CGI, is a creaky, glowering presence. Shrike’s eyes glow a brilliant green for no apparent reason beyond that it’s eerie; he talks in a labored, mechanical growl. The character is basically a steampunk Terminator, with a little Boris Karloff thrown in; that’s still a solid mashup.

Fang gets most of the movie’s limited supply of cool. She shows up halfway through, striding confidently into a scene in which she is very clearly the only person who has bathed recently. She has a gun! Nobody in the movie up to this point has had a gun, but after that it seems like everyone has one, like she was a trendsetter. And, say this for Mortal Engines, Valentine has fun in his gothic science lab. Weaving has a way of making the best of middling genre material (witness his performance in The Wolfman), and he can tell when the scenery’s been chewed enough.

What is Valentine working on? The movie treats it as a secret, so I will too, but Mortal Engines opens with a version of the Universal logo in which the Earth is destroyed in “The Sixty Minute War.” If you’ve played a Fallout game, you can probably guess where this is going.

And that cuts to the heart of Mortal Engines‘ limited appeal: This is a story with no real through-line, but some interesting residual influences. The setup is steampunk, but in the opening minutes, Mortal Engines feels like a 1950s nuclear anxiety parable. Characters are introduced by having them state lore at each other; it’s a bad technique that’s almost charming for how outdated it is.

As the just-slightly-overlong runtime unspools, the focus changes. Mortal Engines becomes, in turn, the sort of action flick than was just going out of style a decade ago. The mid-Aughts was home to the trash blockbuster, which shouldered for attention against the rising superhero trend and the fading disaster movies. On any given weekend between 9/11 and the Great Recession, you could go into a cinema and probably see a movie that had the following:

  • A weird one-off sci-fi hook
  • One or two big stars and a bunch of second-string talent
  • Limited franchise potential
  • Reviews that criticized the acting and/or story, but praised the visuals

Since then, the only movie I can think of that both met these criteria AND was a success is 2013’s Pacific RimMortal Engines has more in common with 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, most crucially the thin lead characters. Valerian lost significant amounts of money, as Mortal Engines is shaping up to do.

I dunno, do you miss this kind of movie? The kind that cost huge amounts of money but still has unconvincing green screen work? I was surprised to realize I did. And at least the theater probably won’t be crowded if you go.