Film review: Mortal Engines

A big steam-punk action film may be a bit too clever for its own good

Mortal Engines (Smrtelné stroje)
Directed by Christian Rivers
With Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang

The Christmas season usually sees some big fantasy-filled action films, and this year Mortal Engines, based on the first of a series of young adult novels, steps up. There won’t be a Star Wars film this winter, so Mortal Engines seems likely to pick up some of that audience.

The lavishly made film, produced and co-written by Peter Jackson, is fairly successful in creating a steam-punk vision of a post-apocalyptic future. But it is not as engaging as it could be.

Jackson brought together many of the same people who worked on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but he did not direct. Christian Rivers, who has worked with Jackson previously on storyboards and visual effects, made his feature directing debut.

Most of the filming took place in New Zealand.

The result is a sort of like Mad Max, but with spiffier costumes and a bit less graphic violence.

The action begins even with the Universal Studio logo. As the globe behind the rotating studio name turns, explosions ravage the surface of the continents.

After that, the audience is asked to buy into some fairly strange concepts. The basic one behind the film is that cities are essentially massive tanks that move across the barren wilderness on caterpillar tracks.

Along the way, sometimes pieces of “old tech” from before the apocalypse that wiped out civilization are found and these are highly valued if they can be made to work.

The look of London, the main roving city, is one of the film’s big assets. It is something akin to the vision of the future in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but without a sense of humor. The dome of St Paul's Cathedral is the dominant feature of the roving city. Officials for some reason wear uniforms based on Victorian designs.

The story itself becomes a bit of a stumbling block, as aside from the pretty settings it is a fairly routine revenge plot.

There are references to an “anti-traction league” and other clunky things that probably looked better on the pages of a teen lit book than on the big screen.

Hester Shaw (played by Hera Hilmar) is the one with an axe to grind. She has survived in the hostile wasteland and seeks to find someone who wronged her and her mother in the past.

Circumstances force her to pair up with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a young London historian with no real-world experience. They both wind up having to fend for themselves against various adversaries.

Initially at least they don’t get along, but the pair makes a fairly watchable bickering couple. The two actors have been in a few films, but haven’t been overexposed so they seem fresh on the screen. Sheehan was in the similarly titled The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, as well as Geostorm, both of which were disappointments. He has a good role in the comedy Moonwalkers, about faking the moon landing, which also failed to reach a wide audience.

Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar is best known for the fantasy series Da Vinci's Demons. She makes a breakout performance in Mortal Engines as a tough and resourceful action hero with a heart.

A major disappointment though is Hugo Weaving, who usually stands out in a film. He has been in several film franchises including The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, plus other big-budget action films and low key dramas.

He has a somewhat one-note performance here as a London official. Especially in the latter part of the film, he tends to go a bit too much over the top. The script lets him down, with too many obvious lines of dialogue.

Mortal Engines does hold together if one is willing to take its steam-punk concept, but it may be just a bit too forced and high-concept for many viewers. It would be hard to imagine a better screen version of the books, but some things are best left on the page.

As far as post-apocalyptic teen lit adaptations go, it is better than The 5th Wave, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The Darkest Minds. It falls quite a bit short of The Hunger Games.

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