Mortal Engines starts with a wonderful piece of comedic world building. The city of London is now a giant moving vehicle, and while the movie is doing some basic introduction of young adult characters, we see all the familiar London icons repurposed for new roles in being a moving vehicle. The London Eye, for example, is now used as a transport system to move from one deck to another. Famous buildings like the Big Ben and St Paul are set on top. It’s best not to wonder how people ever managed to construct this lurching Frankenstein vehicle.
Mortal Engines is very preoccupied with being a visual feast. But underneath all the rusty, rolling cities and giant metal maws, we get a rather standard story of what you often find in the Young Adult trend. The young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) is literally kicked out of London by the city’s head navigator Valentine (Hugo Weaving), after a runaway girl Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) told him that Valentine murdered her mother. Tom and Hester team up in the outside fields where the cities roam. So, in essence, this is a post-apocalyptic story about two youngsters taking up the big bad corrupt adults, just like all the other YA stories out there.
The main problem is that we’ve all seen this before and it is all a bit boring and predictable. These characters are archetypes that we see in every film of this type. There is a conspiracy among the adults, which all “talk mean” to each other. Sheehan plays a naïve, talkative boy, Hilmar the tough, world-wise woman, but of course Sheehan’s optimism rubs off on her and romantic interest bubbles up. There is a side story of two more young adults, the daughter of Valentine and some other boy. The visual spectacle is all a bit of window-dressing to create excitement, but it feels artificial, like from a playbook.
One could predict the rest of the film quite easily, and we indeed move from plot point to inevitable plot point. I began thinking how this movie could be made more immersive. A good, strong main character would have helped a lot, but the movie divides its attention over too many characters at once. We don’t spend much time in their heads individually, so they never come alive that much. Sheehan instead is annoyingly self-deprecating and naïve, like some textbook guy who is supposed to be sympathetic but misfires.
The second half threw some real turds at me. A token Asian character showed up who seemed to have walked straight out of The Matrix and completely clashed with the tone of the film to a ridiculous degree. She brings the boy and girl to DiversityTown in the clouds, where people speak Chinese and wear dreadlocks, and the whole final battle becomes an East versus West thing. The final unfolding of the plot is strikingly similar to Star Wars. But yeah, visually it is stunning to look at.
This movie is riding the tail end of a trend that started with The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, but is by now all but played out. What is actually needed is a new form of fantasy, a new creativity to rejuvenate the genre on screen. But Mortal Engines does not offer that.