Book adaptations are never an easy thing. You have to make compromises to the story and leave out entire sections so you can reduce the run time to a reasonable amount. Fans of the source material will almost always be disappointed in the results. A favorite character is left on the cutting room floor. Or they are present, but just don’t have enough screen time; or don’t behave or look the way you remember them in your head. I tend to read a book after I’ve seen the movie adaptation first. It’s unavoidable in some cases when the book is decades old and has been shared by millions. Which is why it is important to keep an open mind going in and remember that adaptations are only that. Not direct interpretations of the story. Like plays or TV shows based on movies or books, it’s an alternate vision of the original premise. I find that prospect exciting. Although sometimes things can get too exciting.
In Mortal Engines, directed by Christian Rivers, Earth has suffered a cataclysmic event in the near future and entire nations are reduced to rubble. The remaining societies have built motorized cities that can travel across the planet like mechanical nomads, scrounging and trading for whatever resources are available. After a thousand years, the vestiges of our once modern culture are built atop and within these machines. Hester Shaw(Hera Hilmar) is confronted by one of these machines. London is a now a behemoth tank, towering over all other machines and ravenous for fuel and supplies. Like most great empires, the general populace care very little about what methods are used to maintain the wealth and prosperity they are accustomed to. They also don’t concern themselves with the lower class citizens who operate and service the machine.
Hester has a grudge with a man named Thaddeus Valentine(Hugo Weaving), the chief officer tasked with keeping track of London’s power supply. She comes across a historical preservationist named Tom(Robert Sheehan), who works for a local museum in London. He reminds me of an English Justin Long. Thaddeus manages to escape Hester’s assassination attempt with Tom’s help, but not before secrets are exchanged between Hester and Tom. Thaddeus has secret plans for London and will not let anyone stand in his way. It’s up to Hester, Tom, and a band of rebels known as the Anti-Traction League to figure out what Thaddeus is up to and fight London with everything they’ve got.
I should point out the things I liked before I give this film a proper analysis. My interpretation of this world is that it’s a post-apocalyptic Settlers of Catan on wheels. At least that’s the part of the background setup I gravitated to. As the movie went along, I began to like the Hester character more and more. Her backstory is covered in flashbacks and those are important, but I think it would have made her journey more powerful for the viewer if we got all that in the beginning of the movie. Anna Fang is one of the Anti-Traction rebels and she is a total bad ass with no character defects. Shrike is a murderous android, played by Stephen Lang, and I connected with him more than any human character. That says more about the script than it does about the actors playing the humans. I believe, and I could be wrong, if you read the book, then knowing these characters beforehand will get you more invested in them. They certainly edit their appearances in a way like we should already know them. I also really enjoyed the third act. I only wish the two acts that preceded it didn’t take so long or had better developed characters.
The story is very abrupt and it doesn’t give you a moment to register how this world really came to be. I had to suspend disbelief at how multiple societies, after such devastation, were so quickly able to build and maintain these enormous, complex machines without any foresight. Moving cities that are not built for aerodynamics or architectural integrity. They were built to look cool from a fantasy standpoint, but after a thousand years you would think they would enable the exterior of their cities to fold up to avoid crumbling from all the vibrations during transport. It’s something I might have overlooked if I was watching a cartoon. Still it’s a minute quibble in the premise and I shouldn’t overthink it since the main story is Hester. Also this world of mobile municipalities makes for some good set pieces.
A fair amount of focus in this film is the action scenes. It’s something Peter Jackson, a producer and writer on the film, is well known for. His work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy is stellar. However, this movie has sequences that are more like the Hobbit trilogy. They are outlandish and defy physics or comprehension. One particular scene takes place in the bowels of London and is so laughably absurd I had to roll my eyes. The moments after that get better, but they are so squeezed together that you just want to take a break and get some genuine human interaction for a while. The best parts actually occur near the last 45 minutes of the movie and are probably what keep this film from becoming a Star Wars prequel disaster. Unless you liked the Phantom Menace. Another comparison of CGI overload with bad dialogue I could make is 2016’s Warcraft. Pretty visuals with characters I did not connect with.
Speaking of Star Wars, I don’t know if the book makes subtle references to this beloved franchise, but the movie version of Mortal Engines is all about being overt. If the desired execution is an intentional homage to the style and substance of a galaxy far far away, then mission accomplished. You may even see designs that remind you of Lord of the Rings. Trust me when I say you will find plenty to talk about when the movie is over.
Mortal Engines is a messy somersault of visual escapades, but sticks the landing with a broken foot. I grew increasingly disenchanted, but the ending brought me back and made me want to see more. The visual effects are impressive. They should be when you consider how much time and money was spent on them. I liked the allusions to Eastern and Western philosophies. The dialogue is not great, but good enough for this type of story. I personally would have liked more scenes showing other roaming societies, elaborating on what appears to be a narrow landscape of London and not much else. I can’t give any one character or actor more credit than another because they all were pretty much holding up the shaky foundation of this film. I’d recommend seeing this at least once on the big screen and make up your own mind. Maybe save a few bucks and go to a matinee though.
About Mortal Engines
Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic world where cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive, two people meet in London and try to stop a conspiracy.
Director: Christian Rivers
Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Stars: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving
Runtime: 2 Hour, 8 Minutes