“Mortal Engines” wasn’t one of the worst films of 2018, but may perhaps be the single most boring experience that I had in a theater all year.
Considering my own unabashedly favorable disposition towards high concept young adult skewing genre faire along with how constantly and consistently the screen stays visually busy, that would almost be a monumental accomplishment worth ironically bragging about if it weren’t for the ludicrous amount of production and resources wasted on this turkey of a would-be steampunk fantasy epic franchise starter.
Set in a post apocalypse in which escalating warfare fractured landmasses and ended the modern age as we know it, giving way to a new age of colonial imperialistic steampunk nomad civilizations known as predator cities, the story of Hester Shaw’s quest for revenge against the corrupt historian and government official that killed her mother for reasons unknown to her has the appearance of a branching world encompassing conspiracy that threatens to alter the course of human history until you realize the bad guy is bad, the two central protagonists are good, and everything in between is just an excuse to revel in a suffocating sense of glorious steampunk aesthetic, narrative be damned.
Let me make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against the notion of pulp fantasy for pulp fantasy’s sake. That is in fact the very reason I was looking forward to “Mortal Engines.” The debilitating flaw of this film however is that pulp only really works if you dedicate to its nature as an escapist fantasy above all other potential metatextual framings. One of the reasons why the break neck pacing combined with choppy editing and bombastic art direction manages to incite dullness rather than excitement is because the storytelling on display here is as amateurishly self-serious, as its own premise is silly.
The historians and archaeologists of the world all fawn over artifacts of the lost age as though they were technological marvels despite using Victorian age technology in capacities that would make modern day engineers with Mensa level IQs hang their heads in unworthiness. While some sort of irony is attempted to be drawn out regarding the waste of human potential in relation to capability and priorities, there’s no sense of self-awareness that’s truly actualized on, which makes the quirks feel silly and one-note and the aggressively grim tone of the movie all the more overbearing.
An adventure this steeped in style and swashbuckling antics shouldn’t be so joyless but “Mortal Engines” is so preoccupied with establishing world building with little bearing on the plot and a plot so disconnected from the conflict of its own central characters that every element of charm is downright limp, which is perhaps best illustrated by the embarrassingly stiff performances by a cast that looks like they’re actively floundering under the lack of material written for them.
The extent of everybody’s character more or less begins and ends as stylish set dressing, with genuinely consistent quirks popping up so sporadically they could almost be mistaken for improvisations. Where the main cast is concerned, Hugo Weaving, as antagonist Valentine, is the only one to really come out unscathed as his veteran experience allows him to exude and imply a little more humanity than his cartoonish megalomaniac of an archetype would traditionally carry. Beyond that, Robert Sheehan gets one note to play as the well meaning, handsome but bumbling male lead, whose intellect really doesn’t get tested particularly well by the circumstances he finds himself in. Although his fish-out-of-water status does at least give him more to work with than poor Hera Hilmar, who struggles to maintain the same note of “generic irritated badass” while futilely attempting to establish a more three-dimensional range the production around her just won’t allow for. Needless to say, the films efforts to cram these two together into a romance are met with downright embarrassing results.
There’s no denying whatsoever that the production behind “Mortal Engines” is jaw dropping. The art direction is absolutely gorgeous and the opening act in which the audience bears witness to London’s devouring of a smaller town as an establishment of this world’s nature is a strong opening to a seemingly intriguing adventure.
Unfortunately, the intrigue never develops and with the lifeless tone sucking out any sense of adventurous drive that could have benefitted the narrative, cavalcades of characters getting introduced left and right with no defined purpose to the plot that couldn’t have been filled by more extensive character building, and an overall story that seems to be plodding along its merciless two hour length rudderlessly until fizzling out.
If you really want to just gaze at gorgeous steampunk designs for two hours, you’re better off staying home and browsing DeviantArt.
2 out of 5
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.