Mortal Engines takes all the wrong genre cues
I love when a film supplies a perfect metaphor for itself. Mortal Engines has the clearest example since Muppets Most Wanted (there is an imposter Kermit, possibly because the Muppets are now owned by Disney and not by a Henson?). This metaphor requires explaining the premise of the film. After some war in our future, an even further future civilization lives off the scraps of what we left behind in giant mobile cities.
The main city we see is London, and in an early opening sequence (seen in the film’s initial trailer), London fires harpoons and captures a smaller, German-ish looking city and pulls it into a garage. Then the smaller city is ripped apart for scrap, drained of its resources, and the leftovers are pushed into a gigantic furnace that powers the city’s engine. And this is the same thing Mortal Engines does with franchise after franchise. Direct references and borrowed story beats hail not only from Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh produced and co-wrote the script with Philippa Boyens), but also Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, and a host of others. Mortal Engines is strip mining and recycling, but not doing the work of any of those other franchises to make the story work at all.
The cardinal sin, however, is that this film has not a single character. There are no defined motivations, and barely any character traits. For example, one of the leads, Tom (Robert Sheehan) says he gave up dreams of being an aviator when his parents died, and instead became an archeologist at the museum. But why did he make that choice? If this London is anything remotely like ours, I can’t at all see how archeology is something one just falls backward into.
Similarly, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is half character, half McGuffin, and the only interesting things we learn about her are in extended flashbacks (which usually come from her sharing her past with people she just told she wasn’t going to explain her past to). The rest of the characters are even less defined, nor do the actors get enough screen time to exude anything more than some vague sense of “cool,” “pirate,” “stuck up,” or “evil.” Other than the leads, I couldn’t even combine two of those words I just listed to describe any of the characters in the film.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bothersome if Mortal Engines had some good action or something to hold interest on a visual level. Sadly, those things are just as borrowed, making them feel rote, but with one other major problem: scale. Mobile cities are big, obviously. But there’s so many times where the scale just feels...off. I am not sure if the scale is accurate, but I don’t have anything on the screen to compare it to, or if the size of things changes from shot to shot. The cities rove about a wasteland full of giant tire tracks and greenery, so seeing them from a human scale, they either seem to move too fast or seem not big enough. It ended up being super distracting because there was nothing else in this film to hold onto. And because the score is so deafeningly bombastic (at least in IMAX), there wasn’t enough power left in my brain to think about anything else.
I am sure that the source material of Mortal Engines had some potential, but this film actualizes on absolutely none of it. Let us never speak of it again.
Mortal Engines opens today in Philly theaters.