Stalled: Our Review of ‘Mortal Engines’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - December 13, 2018
Stalled: Our Review of ‘Mortal Engines’

No one can win them all…

When buzz started to swirl that Peter Jackson and his team from the Lord of the Rings trilogy had written a new film, the buzz was understandably large and very palpable.  However, Mortal Engines is just an unholy mess of a film as it feels like the source material just got over valued and should have never made it to the screen in the first place.

Hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, a mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop London — now a giant, predator city on wheels — from devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Since I do at least like to pretend that I am a professional, I can’t in good conscience publish the much simpler and shorter review of this film that I’d like to…but you can see it summed up in this YouTube clip right here.

That being said Mortal Engines is an almost top to bottom disaster, with a messy script that borrows from a lot of familiar genre tropes that barely makes any sense, an ensemble cast that can’t act their way out of a paper bag…but at least the special effects are OK in this Steampunk style effort that may have ‘Punk’d’ itself more than intended.

Yeah, Mortal Engines looks pretty good with some solid effects and well staged action sequences but that’s about where the nice things we have to say about this movie ends.

Adapted from the novel by Philip Reeve, the team of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens who have delivered audiences some iconic genre work over the ages, may have simply overvalued the source material on this one.  The actual narrative is pretty thread bare, when it bothers to make sense and very few of the characters have any kind of emotional depth or story about them, making it that much harder to connect with any of them or anything that is going on around us.

It shamelessly borrows beats from the Star Wars franchise (yeah, we’ll admit that everybody kind of does) but there’s so little nuance or originality to anything that is unfolding from the smallest moments to the biggest plot points that we just can’t help but dial out of this mess at a very early stage.  And the film is 129 minutes long.

The dialogue feels flat and it all lingers on unnecessary moments far longer than it needs to while seemingly rushing through plot points that actually felt kind of important.  I haven’t read a single page of the book and will admit to having no frame of reference on that, but you can’t help but get the feeling that the entire thing was done in a fairly slapdash (or worst) just flat out lazy fashion.

This is director Christian Rivers’s first trip into the center chair after a long history working in special effects, and to put it bluntly…he needs to go back.  The actor’s were rigid at the best of times and we never truly felt any kind of emotional connection to the story as he was just trying to move everything along from action set piece to action set piece.

With an ensemble of C-Grade character actors and young actors who’ve never had to carry anything bigger then 5th billing on a foreign TV series or a short film, it is all woefully under cast.  Hera Hilmar as our protagonist tries her best, but the material lets her down and any moments she gets to try and make her character feel compelling and sympathetic play out in such a clumsy and telegraphed way that it actually makes me feel sorry for all involved.  Robert Sheehan is out of his element opposite her with the supporting players being woefully underdeveloped.  Hugo Weaving was very one dimensional as Thaddeus Valentine and familiar players like Colin Salmon and Stephen Lang barely get noticed it at all as everything unfolds.

As hard as it may be to believe, looking back on Mortal Engines; I’m not even all that angry at it.

No one in their right mind goes out to make a terrible film (especially one that costs $100 Million before marketing) but this tries too late to go that young adult well of storytelling that has already past its prime and it kind of makes me sad.  Even if they had made this 5-6 years ago at the peak of the young adult material surge in cinemas, it still would have been a clunky mess.

I can appreciate the talent and the skill involved in trying to make a film of any size but remember, even LeBron James throws up the occasional air ball/brick of a shot that he wishes he could get back.  For Peter Jackson and his team, Mortal Engines is that shot and then some.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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