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Review: Mortal Engines (2018)

Mortal Engines (2018)

Directed by: Christian Rivers

Premise: An adaptation of the book by Philip Reeve. In a post-apocalyptic future, the planet’s major metropolises have been turned into mobile predator cities that devour smaller communities. A young woman with a mysterious past tries to stop the rulers of London from acquiring a super weapon. 

What Works: The production design of Mortal Engines is impressive. The movie takes place in a world shattered by the aftermath of a war that has set civilization back to the pre-digital era. Most everything seems to run on nineteenth century technology and the interior of the predator cities has the look of a foundry. The sets are very detailed and the movie has a vivid feel of metal and rust. It’s also admirable how Mortal Engines attempts to address some big issues. The intelligence of most Hollywood fantasies is usually inversely proportional to the size of the budget and a lot of epic tales dumb down the conflicts to simplistic good versus evil or freedom versus slavery binaries. The conflicts of Mortal Engines are driven by consumption and in particular the need of the first world—embodied here by London—to absorb the resources of less powerful nations. That’s a bit more sophisticated than we usually get from this kind of movie.

What Doesn’t: Despite the political implications of its premise, Mortal Engines too often feels like it was transcribed from a post-apocalyptic fantasy movie boilerplate. The story incorporates every cliché of the genre and it feels like a patchwork of scenes and characters from other movies. Mortal Engines is led by a tough and mysterious young woman who is out for revenge and she pairs with a young man who was part of the oppressive city until he sees the truth. Together they join a resistance movement in a race against time to prevent the forces of evil from acquiring a super weapon. This has all been done before and Mortal Engines never revitalizes the material. The characters are not interesting. That isn’t the fault of the actors who do a fine job with the material they are given. The problem is that no one is ever anything more than their fantasy movie trope: the scrappy heroine, the pirate, and the snarling villain. No one is worth investing in nor do they have depth. The same flaws extend to the story world. Any hints of moral ambiguity are ignored and the conflicts are vague and uninteresting. We know that the villain is putting together a superweapon but there is little reason to care if he achieves it or not. The action scenes are competently done but they don’t look any different from the set pieces in other computer generated fantasy pictures. The lack of interesting characters, the absence of concrete stakes, and the familiarity of everything on screen makes for a movie that is often boring.

Bottom Line: Mortal Engines is another failed attempt to launch a fantasy franchise from a young adult book series. The material has potential but the film nullifies anything that’s interesting with its bland characters and a paint-by-numbers story.

Episode: #731 (December 30, 2018)