Mortal Engines review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Decades ago, Peter Jackson’s WingNut production company made a cheap and clever film called Bad Taste, made for little money and shot on weekends, but oozing with as much charm as it was gross brains spilling out of heads. Now, in 2018, his company has made Mortal Engines, a big-budget blockbuster based on the young adult novel that is devoid of personality. A budget of $100 million can’t make up for the lacking personality, as the film comes off as little more than another clunker of the subgenre.
More thought has been put into this amazing post-apocalyptic world with its towering cities and alternative aircraft. It really says something about an adventure film such as this where the mobile version of London, its many buildings and landmarks sitting atop a giant tank, has more personality than any of its characters. The hero is Hester, a young girl that has revenge on her mind but must ultimately save the day and come to terms with her sordid past. The villain is the evil London historian Thaddeus, dabbling in pre-apocalypse weapons to maybe rule over London one day. Tom is a plainly plucky young historian that will end up in a romance with Hester because the plot requires one, pushing them together like a kid making their dolls kiss each other forcibly.
Other characters are thrown into the mix. Anna Fang is a rebel working against the tank cities who looks like she belongs more in a post-apocalyptic 1980s than the dirtier and grimy world of tanks. No, wait, she has more the look of a Final Fantasy character with her huge hair, bright red jacket, designer sunglasses, and shotgun. She looks so strange amid the rebels and city-dwellers that all look either filthy or old-fashioned proper. Another character thrown into the mix is the zombie-cyborg Shrike (Stephen Lang) who hunts down Hester like a green-eyed Terminator, a bone still left to pick with her. He has a backstory that may be the most interesting of the lot but he’s reduced to a mere supporting character.
You don’t even have to wait for the credits to know this movie was based on a young adult novel. You can feel how overstuffed this picture is with characters, machines, colonies, backstories, and tropes that it’s struggling to get too much of the source material crammed into a tight two hours. This leads to several deeply confusing scenes about how Tom is such a great amateur pilot and how Hester just happens to have a third act MacGuffin that she was aloof to for years, including her mother who may or may not have seen these events coming. The film also doesn’t have time to introduce other supporting characters who receive little more than brief shots and you’re just expected to know and care about them so that it’s tragic if a few of them die.
I almost feel guilty giving Mortal Engines a mild pass for its visuals that are certainly big and detailed on the IMAX screen because everything else about the picture is a real snooze. By the second act, it becomes very clear this story is on a rigid track and won’t surprise in the least with any unique twists or changes in characters. Perhaps the book would’ve made a better video game considering how much I adored the architecture over the people living inside the cities that can eat towns.