Director: Christian Rivers
Cast: Hera Hillmar, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Robert Sheehan, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
128 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action.
So if you look back at my Most Anticipated Films of 2018 List, you will find that the final spot on that list was given to Mortal Engines, an adaptation of the novel by Philip Reeve and the first of a series of stories. I saw the teaser trailer at an opening night screening of The Last Jedi, and I didn’t know what to think initially. It was a crazy few moments of giant city-like machines chasing each other. I’d never read the books and had no context to place the film other than the name Peter Jackson. That was enough for me.
Mortal Engines follows Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, Bad Samaritan, TV’s Love/Hate), an apprentice historian from the giant “predator” city of London. Tom once dreamt of more with his life before the death of his parents, but now he resides in pillaging through the garbage of cities London has ingested. Now, when a mysterious woman makes her way into London and attempts to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Hacksaw Ridge), Tom finds himself embroiled in their feud as he learns a horrible secret from the woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hillmar, Anna Karenina, An Ordinary Man), that changes his view on everything. Now, he and Hester are searching for a way to stop Valentine from unearthing a great weapon while being endlessly pursued by a Stalker from Hester’s past named Shrike (Stephen Lang, Avatar, TV’s Into the Badlands).
The greatest strength of Mortal Engines comes down to its world-building. This is a fully realized environment, one that I really enjoyed spending time in. This of course comes from Philip Reeve’s source material, aided by the powerhouse writing team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson (King Kong, The Lovely Bones). I craved more information and wanted more time to be spent here in this world.
Though the world itself is really well built, it is inhabited by flimsy characters. I didn’t really get any of Valentine’s motives for his actions in the film, both in flashbacks and present. I didn’t really feel like any of the characters were likable enough to connect to or interesting enough to keep myself invested. They are people just kind of doing things for two hours.
There was so much more I wanted from this film. I feel like the biggest mistake was keeping such a short prologue at the beginning to set up the story. There is a voice recounting the Sixty-Minute War in shockingly lack of detail that it doesn’t really serve its purpose. An effective prologue can work wonders as we’ve seen previously with The Lord of the Rings films, written by the same writing team. I wanted to have the Shrike and the Stalkers set up more. I wanted to have the predator cities and the static settlements explained more to just get things going. It would have taken the great world-building and used it as a tool to drive story and develop character.
I think the lack of character depth comes from a very fresh and new director in Christian Rivers (Minutes Past Midnight) and a lot of new talent that hasn’t been tested in this large of an arena yet. I think Rivers has an excellent knack for capturing visuals (his film background up until now would show that), but I don’t think he pressed hard on character and performance. Hillmar and Sheehan have virtually no chemistry in the film and not a lot of depth. They perform as well as they can but they never develop that chemistry piece that is either miscasting or lack of time spent on directing performance.
Mortal Engines is capably enough put together to the point I would want to see a franchise continue based on the other books. The film is bursting at the seams with ambition. There is a world here that looks gorgeous on film and I want to spend more time in it, but there are problems in this film. It is far too rushed, it needs character direction, and it lacks enough power in its story. I thought the film was just okay, and I wanted to love it, but I was entranced enough by its strengths that I still want to see more.
-Kyle A. Goethe
For my review of the anthology Minutes Past Midnight, click here.
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