The film “Mortal Engines”, directed by Christian Rivers and based on the novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, is a combination of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” and AMC’s “Into The Badlands” that failed miserably at achieving what it wanted to.
Civilization was decimated by the so-called Sixty Minute War. Cities evolved into mobile entities (reminiscent of Howl’s castle), with the opposing Anti-Traction League having non-mobile settlements in Asia. Things we hold dear like iPhones and television are referred to as “old tech.” Under the law, bigger cities can absorb smaller cities in the great hunting ground.
The film starts with London absorbing the smaller city of Salzhaken. We meet Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who attempts to murder Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), Head of the Guild of Historians (as a Historian, Valentine has access to old tech). Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an Apprentice Historian, intervenes. Hester tells Tom that Valentine murdered her mother and gave her the slashed scar on her face that she keeps covered. She then escapes.
When Tom tells Valentine what Hester said, Valentine casually pushes Tom down a chute. Never mind that Tom is a friend of Valentine’s daughter, Katherine Valentine (Leila George). From there, we embark on an action-packed journey filled with spectacular CGI and underwhelming storylines and characters.
The movie evokes little thought. The characters are living in a dystopian world that lacks originality. The premise of the futuristic dystopia everyone is so enamored with — myself included — is that it is unique and frightening because of its plausibility and believability. The lack of originality also makes the film unexceptional as science fiction.
The plot of the film is generic and the characters are one-dimensional. As a result, there is little character depth and development. There’s the standard elements: a heroine, a bad guy, the ally and the love interest. The heroine enters the scene as the underdog driven by vengeance. She slowly wins everyone over and they turn against the bad guy. They ultimately defeat the bad guy. The end.
I found myself hoping something different would happen, like the bad guy winning. I also hoped everyone would die so the film would end and I could attend to more substantial matters (i.e., sleep). Unexpected, minor details did little to ameliorate the predictable plot.
I think the issue is that the film focused too much on special effects and too little on the characters. The reason why certain previous films in the same genre were so successful is because the viewer came to care deeply for the characters, wishing for their success. Furthermore, those films focused on building the worlds and building the characters equally. I’m no expert, but I don’t think the goal is for me to be rooting for the heroine’s death, as I did for Hester.
This movie was a box office flop for a reason. It’s safe to say that engine ran out of fuel before takeoff.