I have been excited for ‘Mortal Engines’ since I first saw the teaser earlier this year and the words “from Peter Jackson.” I was so excited that Peter Jackson would be diving head first into a new world that we could all immerse ourselves in that looked all steam punk, which never really went as mainstream as other science fiction tropes. To my dismay, when the credits rolled in ‘Mortal Engines,’ I discovered that Peter Jackson was credited as one of the scriptwriters and a producer. This monstrosity of a fantasy adventure was directed by newcomer Christian Rivers, and his inexperience shows.
If anything, ‘Mortal Engines’ is massive in scope. It is a future world where the human race managed to destroy the world and left the majority of civilization in mobile cities. The larger cities, called Predator Cities, attack smaller towns to steal supplies and resources from what we are told is on short supply.
And the largest and fiercest of these Predator Cities is London.
The movie begins as London makes an attack on a small mining town, which holds a mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw, who is hell bent in killing London’s hero, Thaddeus Valentine. We are introduced to a few more characters like Valentine’s daughter Kate and a young historian, Tom Natsworthy, and a quick rundown of what happened to the world and the significance of destroying old world technology.
But Tom manages to entangle himself with Hester and begins the pair’s journey into the world of ‘Mortal Engines,’ which include brutal scavengers, a fortified valley with a bountiful supply of food and precious resources, an outlaw called Anna Fang, and an undying soldier of death.
The Predator Cities in themselves are humongous. They are detailed and the mechanisms operating every moving part is a marvel to behold, and fully utilized in the many action sequences that pepper the film. But along with the largeness of the steampunk technology that this world operates in, the narrative in itself is so massive that the film is bogged down by so much exposition.
The story almost operates threefold: Hester and Tom’s adventure, Valentine’s nefarious plans, and even a small subplot involving Kate that feels horrendously underdeveloped because the dramatic beats of her character’s arcs are that of a lead character.
Many characters seem to have lengthy backstories that are essential to motivating these characters, but much of the two hour and eight minute running time is spent only on the essentials. There is not enough time to dig into these characters fully to make the narrative beats in the story really carry weight. There is an underdeveloped romance that they try to slip in between Hester and Tom but it never really takes flight, because there is so much plot and action sequences to go through.
As the trailer suggests, Hester and Anna have a sort of connection through Hester’s mother, but any attempt at maternal surrogacy can’t take root because there are plot points that need to be met before we can settle in with the relationships of each of the characters.
It doesn’t help that the film falls unto the shoulders of a largely unrecognisable cast. Hera Hilmar shows a level of grit and ferocity that makes Hester a formidable character, but she doesn’t have the screen presence to pop. Robert Sheehan is recognizable for fans of the UK show ‘Misfits’ but his Tom doesn’t stand out because his character’s arc is generic and is easily swallowed up by the largeness of everything around him. This is par for the course for Hugo Weaving, who could do Valentine in his sleep. Jihae is stunning as Anna Fang but she’s more style than substance as the film has no time to spare to give her character any more meat than the typical badass outlaw with a heart.
Based on the book by Philip Reeve, I’m sure ‘Mortal Engines’ must be an exciting read but its story is so dense and the world so immersive that it feels like it might have been better as a television series or a trilogy of films. There’s just so much going on that while it can be enjoyable to see on the big screen, it never has the time to settle in and enjoy the world building nor ingrain the emotional depth of the story.
If anything, ‘Mortal Engines’ proves that bigger is not necessarily better.