Mortal Engines, adapted by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyne from the popular children’s novel by Philip Reeve, imagines a post-apocalyptic world where London has become a city on wheels, roaming the scorched crust of the European continent in search of smaller towns to consume in order to feed the fiery belly within. Leading the buccaneering metropolis is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a man concealing a dark plot to blow up a colossal wall dividing Europe from Asia in his quest for world domination.
This prompts the question: will our unlikely protagonists prevent this from happening? The film will try shed light on issues of class, immigration and even love but don’t let these fleeting themes distract you from the fact that Mortal Engines is actually about spectacle and not much else.
Under the direction of Christian Rivers, who worked for Jackson’s art departments on The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Mortal Engines works best when it is displaying its impressive world building imagery — which is evidently where Rivers feels most at home. In between the huge set pieces that hark to George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (the two films even share a composer – Junkie XL), Mortal Engines struggles to convince that you should care for its protagonists; an annoyingly talkative wannabe pilot and a woman with a scar across her face who wants to kill the hero before he gives another bland line reading.
Their relationship is sadly a necessary element to the story because as much as Rivers regrets it, the film couldn’t be two hours of Evil-London chasing small towns and blowing up walls because that would somehow be even more dull than what we already have.
But what’s not to like about giant malevolent cities trawling through a post-apocalyptic landscape consuming all that comes within its path? The main issue with Mortal Engines is that it devotes a significant portion of time explaining who the characters are and how their past traumas haunt them, feigning compassion and care for the delicate smaller issues that are actually interesting.
All the film really cares about is whether London’s HUGE quantum energy gun will destroy the HUGE wall? And will our protagonists flying around in HUGE planes be able to blow up that HUGE gun before the energy gun destroys the HUGE wall? It was frustrating to see some critics liken Mortal Engines to Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle — yes the two films both have a giant mechanical habitat at their core but beyond that Mortal Engines pales in comparison to Miyazaki’s rich, charming and emotionally involving story.
If there is a silver lining to be found it’s the film woeful box office performance, scraping in a mere $71 million from a $100 million budget, revealing that audiences are beginning to reject empty CGI leviathans because, despite what the Romans told us, spectacle on its own is not enough to entertain us.