In a post-apocalyptic future, entire cities have been transformed into enormous tank-like machines, moving across the European landscape capturing and tearing apart smaller communities for resources. Rebel Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) sneaks into the moving city of London with an eye to murder its technological genius Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) – but things do not occur as planned.
Hollywood being what it is, every year will bring at least one major box office disaster: a film expensive enough in production and marketing that its commercial failure leads to a studio losing more than $100 million on its creative gamble. Or, in this case, $175 million. Mortal Engines, based on the successful young adult novel by Philip Reeve and produced by Peter Jackson, was a colossal commercial failure for Universal Pictures and was not warmly received by critics either. Such a dire response from audiences gives any film a stench of failure; oftentimes that failure is rather undeserved. I think that may be the case here.
Mortal Engines is by no means a superb film, or even a particularly great one. It is, however, a broadly enjoyable one. It has an inventive setting of giant steampunk-styled cities on wheels, and draws inspiration from filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, the Wachowskis, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Understandably director Christian Rivers draws the most experience from is his producer, Peter Jackson, and the film has an overall painterly aesthetic reflecting Jackson’s own post-Tolkien work. It all feels familiar enough that one would be forgiven for wondering which filmmaker had the more muscular hold on the work.
The story quickly adopts a loose interrogation of colonialism, with the imperial-styled London going out of its way to invade and defeat what is effectively post-apocalyptic China. It is not sufficiently developed to discuss at length, but the gesture at least is appreciated. The colonial aspects also give the film’s presentation of future London a pleasant sort of World War II propaganda aesthetic. Sadly the film’s representation of the zen-like Shan Guo fall relatively flat, drawing comparisons to the similarly tokenistic Zion in The Matrix trilogy.
The film’s cast vary in a slightly frustrating way. Hugo Weaving is always watchable, while Hera Hilmar demonstrates tremendous future promise. Fellow lead Robert Sheehan is less successful, coming across largely as a half-formed David Tennant in firm need of subtlety. Korean pop singer Jihae Kim has screen presence to spare as the Han Solo-esque pilot Anna Fang, while there are other solid supporting turns by the likes of Stephen Lang, Patrick Malahide, and Colin Salmon.
Altogether the film feels watchable but divided: some elements feel original, and some derivative, some energetic, and some leaden. Mortal Engines was never going to be a blockbuster success, but far less creatively valid works have performed much better. As a franchise – there are three other books to adapt – it may have crashed and burned on the starting line, but as an interesting fragment on home video and streaming platforms it is worth a closer look than its theatrical performance suggests. A cult following potentially awaits.