Movie Review: Mortal Engines

On my way into the theatre before seeing this movie, the usher saw my ticket and said to me: “This movie’s great, don’t listen to the haters.” That somewhat set my expectations, funny enough. When I heard him yell behind me “Oh! And auditorium 13 is on the left!” I was thinking to myself that I would just go in and see what happened. It turned out, I had a pretty good time.  

At the end of the day, this isn’t a good movie, but it was a fun movie. It’s not worth a 10/10 or really any more than maybe 50 on Rotten Tomatoes (though I’m sure it’s far worse than that), but it’s certainly not all that bad.

It’s a paint by numbers action movie. You’re introduced the villain, then the hero, they have a brief encounter, and the action is set off. There’s a hero’s journey, the action rises and the hero wins the day by discovering that a plot device which was set up early was the key to everything.  No, that wasn’t a spoiler.

I really enjoyed the character of Tom. He seemed like he was actually enjoying himself through the entire film. The lead character however, Hester Shaw, was less enjoyable. Now, there is development which explains much of this later in the movie, but throughout most of the action she shows little to no emotion. Even the times where she’s having a very human moment, she’s stiff.

In terms of villains I’m struggling to understand why Hugo Weaving was in this movie. It seemed a little below his stature. His forehead acts better than the average in this film. Everybody’s got to get paid, sure, but when he actually let loose it seemed almost out of place. He was turned up to 11 and the plot around him merited a 6 or less until the very end. At that point an 8 would have done.

One experiential nitpick: this movie was horribly loud. There were moments, and many of them, when the music would build to a climax of just shrieking loudness.They used this in sections that weren’t even all that exciting. Maybe if I’d read the book I’d have gotten the significance, but the movie didn’t earn the pomp. Sure, sections like this made the silence very notable when they left London, but that sort of effect can be achieved in other ways. Case study: Dunkirk, 2017.

This has all been very negative, so here’s why I liked this movie. The world was incredible, and the visuals were massively compelling. You might look at this movie and think it’s a steampunk genre piece. It’s not. Sure, much of the technology is steampunk in a way, but really it’s a dystopian sci-fi. The action occurs following a nuclear holocaust. The world is gripped with some sort of tectonic instability which destroys cities and sucks them into the Earth. The result is people build cities on wheels. The cities get bigger and bigger, and eventually they become like warships, hunting smaller cities and using them for parts. That backdrop is reasonably well realized. Some things happen that don’t make a lot of sense, but it’s compelling enough that it doesn’t matter. This movie is worth the watch just for that.

This movie also fell into the category of “China saves the day.”  I’ll talk more about that later.

Overall, enjoyable movie. Worth a watch, just buy the cheap tickets.

-- Spoilers Ahead --

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-- Spoilers --

Two big spoiler points.

Hester was raised by a robot. This explains a lot of her character traits. What isn’t explained is that Hester has less emotional weight than the robot who raised her. The Shrike subplot is what I enjoyed most about this movie. He was the most compelling character. That’s probably not a good thing in the end.

Shrike’s motivation was good but his method was bad. The character demonstrated significant reasoning ability in the vignettes we see but he chases Hester like a Terminator. For Hester’s part she never thinks to try to reason with the person who is effectively her father figure. Nevertheless, Shrike’s death is a very compelling moment, and the vignettes of him and young Hester are equally moving. If someone cuts that together as a short story, you can skip the movie and just watch that. You’ll get the same weight.

The second big spoiler is the “China saves the day” plot point. Of course, Mortal Engines is a novel and I have not red it, so I must simply assume that the Shield Wall exists in the book too. However, the actual location of the wall in context in the context of the action, or how the civilization on the wall can survive no other static cities can, doesn’t make sense. London crosses the land bridge into Europe and drives for three days in movie time. In this time they aren’t actively trying to reach the wall. Yet, they suddenly are there at the base of what looks like the Himalayan mountains. How does that work? If it’s not the Himalayas, why is there a predominantly east-Asian society in the Alps, or the Urals? Nowhere plausible was established for the Shield Wall to be, especially since the city drove at the speed of a cruise ship most of the time.

While the world building in this movie was great, it was lacking depth and payoff. For example, they talks about predator cities but we never see two predator cities interact. In the end, watching this movie may just be a very good argument to read the book. Certainly the kid behind me in the theatre seemed to completely understand what was going on.

Oh, and the twist at the end? This ranks at the bottom of the list for “no, I’m your father” twists. Unnecessary.


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