Mortal Engines Review: A visually stunning steampunk sci-fi let down by a mediocre story
While the visual effects are hence nothing short of spectacular, the same can't be said about the characters, the presentation, and the world-building
Looks like Hollywood is never going to run out of options when it comes to adapting novels to the big screen. The latest book to get a promotion to the theatres is Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines. On the lines of Dredd and the Mad Max series, Mortal Engines is also set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk dystopian world, and as the narration, which begins on an impressive note, explains, the cities are mounted on wheels and motorised, and the only way for their citizens to survive is for the cities to prey on one another for resources.
Director: Christian Rivers
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan
Instead of taking the wheel, Peter Jackson, the director of fantasy films such as the Lord of the Rings series and its spin-off the Hobbit series, has stuck to production and screenplay, leaving Christian Rivers, who has worked on the visual effects of Jackson's films, to make his directorial debut with this film. While the visual effects are hence nothing short of spectacular, the same can't be said about the characters, the presentation, and the world-building.
Not letting go of its colonial past, London, the biggest 'traction' city in this world, starts off by capturing a small Bavarian city that it encounters on its way towards the East. What follows are the trials and tribulations of three pivotal characters -- the villainous Head of the Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a low-class apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), and the fugitive assassin, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) -- in a two-hour long mash-up of multiple sub-plots.
Despite Tom being the most likeable character, the plot doesn't leave much for Sheehan to do, and he ends up under-utilised. As a resident of London who has never been out of the city, when he finally gets on the ground for the first time in his life, the film fails to make a deal out of it. Himar's Hester has a far more interesting plot with her mysterious background, which includes a decent backstory sans the dreary father-sentiment angle.
The film's best moments include its subtle take on 'old-tech' such as iPhones and Minion figures gracing the shelves of the London museum. While we're at it, the city of London in Mortal Engines has everything from the famous red telephone booth, the underground trains with the 'please mind the gap' announcements and even St Paul's Cathedral. There are even funny references to how Twinkies have managed to stay fresh for hundreds of years. The VFX is lifelike and despite showing something as humongous as a moving city, the attention to details is brilliant. But the film relies too much on its story and visuals.
A la Hunger Games and the Divergent series, people are divided by class but that's something the film doesn't really get into. That would've made for a far more interesting plot. What we get instead is a regular revenge story that moves the wheels of a larger incident, along with an unhealthy dose of a scuffle-turns-to-romance track, a Terminator-like father-figure and many scenes that remind us of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. The rest of the characters, like the ones played by Leila Georg and Ronan Raftery, are used as mere fillers.
On the whole, with a predictable ending and rushed screenplay, Mortal Engines lacks an interesting plot to fuel itself to the finish line victoriously.