By Casey Campbell
Mortal Engines, the spectacle film where cities roll around a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape in the trailers, is almost exactly what you’d expect it to be. It’s huge, it’s loud, and it’s mostly devoid of anything fresh or, to an extent, interesting. At least, for the mind. Visually, Engines is a lush feast, where the world-building takes precedence over the story, and the characters deliver ham and cheese dialogue throughout. But, for what it tries to be, it succeeds.
After picking up the scent of a small mining colony traveling the tundra of what-used-to-be-Europe, the hulking and mobile city of London engages in an exciting and visually stimulating chase. Hester Shaw, a facially scarred Hela Hilmar, is aboard the mining colony and seems to be expecting London to eat them up. In fact, she’s waiting for it. Once they have, in fact, been eaten by London, Shaw seeks out the charismatic, yet covertly power-hungry Thaddeus Valentine. Hugo Weaving plays Valentine with the range of gentle father figure (and boy, are there daddy issues in this movie), to mustache-twirling, intense villain. But through it all, he’s very much the stereotypical Hugo Weaving we’ve come to expect from his several outings working with writer/executive producer Peter Jackson.
The movie is set in the future, but is visually anachronistic, and fittingly so. The costumes vary from Victorian patsy and traditional steampunk to futuristic Matrix garb (futurism as a concept, not time period). The terrestrial machines and flying vehicles obviously channel steampunk too, and they all look awesome. In fact, a sequence set on a floating colony held afloat by a network of massive balloons was particularly awe-inspiring.
The film goes about world-building as well as it possibly could, considering it’s the first of what I’m sure is a planned franchise (one does not simply drop $100 million on an adaptation of a young adult novel for nothing). The exposition is delivered through dialogue, other than the opening sequence which offers a few lines of narration. The characters seem to live in the world, and some fun colorful shots add to the world that they inhabit. The slums of London house the same kind of people you’d expect from Mad Max: Fury Road and the upper class are as devilishly immoral as any from the Hunger Games series, but instead of cheering for kids killing each other, these people love to watch smaller colonies get eaten by their big city. While the society is established, at least visually, there isn’t much to be said otherwise. It’s all fairly surface level.
The only aspect of the film with a bit of depth is the lead, Hester Shaw. The movie positions her as the mysterious, scarred, and withholding character to offset the vocal and often expository Tom Natsworthy, a Londoner working at a museum. Where his backstory is traditional and uninspired, hers was unexpected and thoughtful. In fact, it offered one of the only moments of pure emotion and levity in the whole picture. Director Christian Rivers, who helms the chases and fight scenes with a frantic pace and quick editing, was able to temper his exhausting style in favor of subtlety. The subtlety, if only for one brief vignette of sorts, was much needed. That and the jaw-dropping reference to another Universal Pictures property were some of the only truly unexpected aspects of the film.
Mortal Engines doesn’t recreate the wheel, but it also doesn’t need to. The promise is that of large mobile cities navigating the harsh post-apocalyptic wasteland, and that promise is met. If you’re truly inclined to see it, see it in IMAX, as the sound and picture do truly enhance the experience.
Overall Grade: C+
Originally published at Emertainment Monthly: