It feels a bit like this movie should have come out ten years ago, in the midst of other major Young Adult dystopian films. This might have stood out more had it come before films like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Now, it feels a bit late to the party. Can the movie do enough right to make an impact?
Our movie takes place in the distant future, after most of the world is decimated and some of the remaining cities have become mobile, large and moving monsters across the continents. The primary machine here is London, a predatory city looking for smaller machines to destroy for resources. We meet Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who lost her mother when she was young and she’s seeking the man responsible, a powerful man named Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). We also meet Tom (Robert Sheehan), a historian in London who has an expertise in ancient artifacts and weapons. When Tom and Hester cross paths, they end up on an adventure to stop the city of London from destroying everything, including hope for the human race. They face this threat with the help of rebel leader Anna Fang (Jihae).
We also have a subplot of Hester’s past, revolving around a dangerous former-human now-machine threat called Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang).
As an idea, this movie had a lot to dive into. The conceit of “giant cities on treads that eat other cities for resources” is a wild idea. The credit here goes to the writer of the novels, not so much the filmmakers. Luckily, these giant cities look pretty incredible on-screen, which is necessary for this film to work. The details and mechanisms involved are all super enthralling to watch, though we don’t get nearly enough of those moments.
The most charismatic member of the cast is undoubtedly Hugo Weaving as our villain Valentine. He delivers some great moments and is one of the only cast members who seems confident in what they’re doing here.
What doesn’t work?
The conceit of this story is interesting, though unfortunately we’re coming into the story after all the cool stuff has already happened. There aren’t many mobile cities left, at least that we know of, and there’s really only one instance of a city “eating” another and it happens in the first few minutes of the film. So if you’re excited, like I was, about this general premise, it feels a tad disappointing.
So what we’re left with, is a character story. Unfortunately, these characters are incredibly boring. I found neither of our two leads (Tom and Hester) to be interesting or relatable at all. And when we’re interested to the rebel leader Anna Fang (Jihae), she’s somehow even less interesting and delivers some disappointingly flat line delivery. I found myself repeatedly wanting Hugo Weaving to come back or for the giant city to do something significant.
There’s also a plot line involving this machine person Shrike. Now… Coming from the studio that created Gollum, I would think that creating a realistic-looking machine person would be feasible. Shrike however is a mess that stands out like crazy amidst real-life actors. They also try to give him a heartfelt storyline, which falls incredibly flat and almost laughable.
Mortal Engines is a cool idea and I’m sure the novels are great. The movie though? A huge disappointment. I found the heroes to be boring, so I was rooting for the villains. The film tried to convince me to be either be threatened by or sympathize with this villain Shrike, that all failed miserably. The only cool part of the film is the opening sequence where we actually see the premise of this world. The film is downhill from there.