The worst thing about Mortal Engines is that you can see, in fits and starts and flashes, the movie it could’ve been.
That movie is a lot better than the one we actually got.
Mortal Engines is based on the book by Philip Reeve—the first of a quartet of stories about Hester Shaw, Tom Natsworthy, and the post-apocalyptic future in which they live. Traction cities roam the globe, giant mobile beasts that hunt and repurpose each other for parts and resources. (Just go with it.) Their “municipal Darwinism” is at odds with the Anti-Traction League, who live in what we’d call normal cities and towns—the kind that don’t roll about on giant treads or wheels, crushing everything in their path.
The film’s first 24 minutes, which I first saw at New York Comic Con, build a sense of scale and momentum that’s exactly right for a movie that centers on a mobile London, massive and terrifying and full of people who seem to have all the morality of your average citizen of Panem’s Capitol; they cheer and applaud as London chases down a small mining town, sucking it into the bigger city’s maw for processing. There’s whiz-bang fun to the way the smaller city folds in on itself as it races away, and to the sweeping views of London that illustrate its sheer size and its dramatic class divides.
As London chases the smaller town, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) races to get to his job in the museum, which is full of old tech, remnants of the idiotic ancients (read: us) who destroyed the world in the Sixty-Minute War. On the smaller city, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) stares intently at London, checking her knife and waiting for her moment.
I love this opening sequence; it introduces nearly everyone we need to know, from Tom and Hester and Hugo Weaving’s Thaddues Valentine to Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George) and the smugy pompous Herbert Melliphant (Andrew Lees), who would like to kick Tom back to the lower levels from which he came. (Colin Salmon, perhaps better known as Oliver Queen’s stepdad in Arrow’s early seasons, has a nice little role as deliciously named museum director Chudleigh Pomeroy.) If the score works a little too hard to remind you that this is a chase! in a post-apocalyptic world! Like Mad Max: Fury Road, guys!—well, fine, I can accept that, at least while everything else is progressing so nicely.
But as soon as Hester, having boarded London but failed in her quest to murder Thaddeus Valentine, slips away—and Tom follows, pushed by Valentine—the movie starts to founder. There’s a lightness, and a sense of curiosity, to that first sequence that balances Hester’s murderous intensity. Her anger drives Mortal Engines’ plot, as it should, but this isn’t a dark and gritty story, nor is it the sort of archetypal, mythic tale co-writer and co-producer Peter Jackson tells so well. It’s a more grounded story, one about hurt and revenge and the kind of men who believe that they know what’s best for the whole world. It’s got its hands dirty, but it’s also charming and clever and inventive. The moment when Pomeroy rushes to save his “American deities”—two big Minions figures—is just right: his museum is being rattled to bits by London’s pursuit of the smaller town, but inside that giant traction beast, people go about their lives, and smaller things matter to them.
So it’s more than a bit jarring when the film veers entirely off course for a campy sequence involving tea-serving human traffickers and a slave auction scene in which everyone’s wearing terrible wigs and seem to have stepped off the set of some low-budget ‘80s film. The tone never quite recovers; everything after that awkward sequence is self-serious to a fault.
(There’ll be a few spoilers after this, but this film is so predictable, you might not care. Still: fair warning.)
But even as it loses its sense of humor, Mortal Engines doesn’t know how to address its own weight. To free the Shrike, a metal man (ok, fine: a knockoff Terminator voiced by Stephen Lang) with his own reasons for hunting Hester, Valentine knocks a whole prison into the ocean. Yes, he’s a monster, but the movie has no interest in the fact that he just drowned a lot of people. The same goes for the refuge of Airhaven, which plummets to the ground in a fiery wreck (of course it does; you know that’s going to happen as soon as you see the sign warning against open flame).
The thing is, not everything is wrong. It’s mostly just not quite right. As aviator Anna Fang, Jihae is perfect, casually slinking across the screen as she turns up just in time to save Hester from the slave auction. (Alas, her big fight sequence is a choppy, poorly framed muddle.) Anna’s ship, the Jenny Haniver, looks like a gorgeous red steampunk dragonfly, but her dialogue is full of groaners. The script saddles her with pronouncements and mini-speeches that might work in conversation, but just sound absurd as Important Statements Trying to Pass as Character Work. (She’s not the only one burdened with such lines, but she might have the most of them.)
Sheehan hits just the right tone for Tom, earnest to the point of naiveté but also smart and caring—but then, for just one example, the script makes him waste a long minute in the final battle picking out a new jacket. There’s no chemistry between him and Hester—this story takes place over mere days—but we’re still treated to scenes like the one in which a dying Shrike (why does he die at this incredibly convenient moment? No idea!) decides that Hester doesn’t want Tom to die because she loves him.
It’s not as if there couldn’t be any other reason. Maybe it’s that they’re turning out to be pretty good partners; that they’ve been through hell together already and don’t want to be alone; that people generally don’t want to watch other people get murdered in front of them, let alone whilst hanging about on a giant falling air-town. But this script—co-written by Jackson and his regular writing partners, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh—too often cuts the wrong corners. It streamlines the story in ways that make sense, then still insists on keeping characters that we really don’t need. (Katherine Valentine, though I like her, is largely superfluous.) And though Hester’s facial scar is hugely toned down from the books, the script is still full of references to how ugly she is, none of which make a lick of sense given what she looks like on screen. (This disconnect is aggravated by Rivers’ infuriating comments about how audiences “need to believe that Tom and Hester fall in love”—which would apparently boggle our tiny, shallow minds were Hester as scarred on film as she is on the page.)
Mortal Engines is, all told, too big and too small at once. Rivers is pretty good at the big stuff—an airborne attack on London’s spotlights and guns at the end is both heavily influenced by Star Wars and surprisingly satisfying—he can’t stick the landing on the smaller moments, whether character development or smaller-scale action. After that rich opening sequence, much of the film feels like a very expensive CGI outline that has yet to be filled in. Even the effects get wobblier, the green screens more obvious, the dialogue blander and blander. At the same time, there are visual moments that are pure inventive delight, like the buglike mobile home Hester and Tom fall into, or the variety of designs for the aviators’ ships. Every traction city we see is different, from architecture to storage to engine. Someone cared about building this world. They just forgot to build the characters of the people who live in it.
Remember how The Golden Compass was a terribly disappointing movie that didn’t have to be terrible? How it was in some ways brilliantly cast (Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala forever) and how cool it was to see Dust on screen, and Lyra and Iorek—and then the whole thing just crumbled into a muddle that in no way felt like Philip Pullman’s book? While Mortal Engines’ source material is a different sort of beast, the result is the same: a movie that could’ve been good, at least. It could’ve had anything to say about Valentine’s—and by extension, London’s—insistence that everyone who doesn’t want to live like him is therefore trying to destroy him. It could’ve developed the characters of the Anti-Tractionists, who seem like the most interesting folks on screen. But instead it’s simply another mediocre adaptation that will probably never get a sequel.