“Mortal Engines” revs up fans, combusts on the big screen
December is one of the most coveted months for production companies to release new films, especially during the final weeks of the month during Christmas and New Year’s. Award season is in sight, and with some extra downtime during the holidays, moviegoers everywhere are catching a matinee or having a night out at the movies.
What matters most at the box office is which film people are choosing to see. December is jam-packed with new movie options and Mortal Engines is hopeful in standing tall against other anticipated December movies like Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse and the latest Transformers prequel, Bumblebee. Also, with Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman, Vice, On the Basis of Sex and Welcome to Marwen opening soon, does Mortal Engines have enough steam to push past the competition at the holiday box office? Stalling at the starting line, it’s extremely doubtful.
Based on the popular 2001 YA (Young Adult) fantasy novel by British author Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines is the title of the first of four tetralogy books. All together, they make up the Mortal Engines Quartet, and as popular as they have become, the film adaptation fails to impress. Other fantasy book series like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit have all levelled up on the big screen with critical acclaim, global fandoms and movie awards, so where does Mortal Engines fit among these genre heavy hitters? I’m disappointed to say, despite its creative premise and ambitious special effects, it doesn’t.
Differing from the books in more ways than one, the original concept of Philip Reeve’s first Mortal Engines novel takes place in a distant future where Earth is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic dryland. Small towns and major cities have become tiered and mechanical (sitting atop tractions for mobility) and classism has shaped the new world order. Larger cities (like London) prey on smaller towns for resources, and household electronics like cell phones, computers, toasters, etc., are a thing of the past and archived in museums. Human rights and freedoms have become myths and hierarchies reign supreme. It’s a beautiful nightmare – interesting and intimidating and terrifying, all at once.
Author Philip Reeve’s initial concept is imaginative, original and futuristic, and his realized ideas and characters lept from the pages of his books, manifesting a large fan base of sci-fi/fantasy novel readers everywhere. Mortal Engines, the movie, however, doesn’t deliver in the same way. For instance, Mortal Engines drastically changes the look of main character Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, The Ashram) who is described in the first chapter of the book as “hideous”, but (besides the large scar across her face) looks like a beautiful young model in the film. The plotlines are also tampered with as they’re messily moved around without any purpose; this live-action adaptation is more likely to disappoint, underwhelm and even bore fans of the original book series rather than delight them. I hate to say it, but sci-fi/fantasy fans who are excited for this new film are in for a drawn-out mess of genre tropes.
Mortal Engines has a very real probability of tarnishing acclaimed director Peter Jackson’s reputation – a gamble he willingly took by attaching his name to the project, co-writing the screenplay, and promoting the movie with slogans like “From the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.” Director Christian Rivers has an impressive resume when it comes to film, especially in art direction and storyboard departments. Having worked on some major blockbusters and acclaimed genre films like King Kong, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and all three The Hobbit films, Mortal Engines’ mediocre delivery could threaten his directorial opportunities in the future, too. This film, however, marks Rivers’ first (and last?) time directing a major motion picture. Previously, Rivers directed a short film entitled Feeder, back in 2005.
The main problem with Mortal Engines is that it doesn’t ever spread its wings wide enough to take off. Other main actors, like the charmingly doe-eyed Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, Bad Samaritan), the seemingly generic villain, Thaddeus Valentine (The Lord of the Rings), and The Matrix-influenced Anna Fang (Jihae, TV’s Mars), are all likable in their respective roles, but none of them deliver exceptional performances. Be thankful for the battle scenes because a lot of the dialogue is painful to sit through. The rest of the characters are supporting and they take up way too much screen time instead of uplifting the story.
By the time the credits rolled, I was honestly happy it was over. Leaving the theatre, I felt I’d just watched a hodgepodge of shaken-down fantasy films: the opening sequence (which is disappointingly spoiled in the extended trailer) and the final battle are by far the most climactic scenes of the film’s entire 2 hours and 8 minutes – an ambitious running time considering Mortal Engines fails to hold viewers’ attention. And there are way too many aspects of Philip Reeve’s world that are left unexplained. Instead, Mortal Engines catapults viewers into a choppy storyline with underdeveloped and poorly represented characters and confusing subplots that lack any real substance. Mortal Engines had the potential to be one of this year’s best adaptations… Instead, it’s running on an empty.
“Some scars never heal.”
2 Popcorn Kernels / 5
About the Author
Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.