Mortal Engines: Grand Spectacle Lacking Depth

Actress Hera Hilmar poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Mortal Engines’ in central London, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

Peter Jackson solidified his reputation as a grand film maker with his record shattering success on The Lord of the Rings movies. Since 2003, Jackson’s filmography has included King Kong, The Adventures of Tintin, and even a return to Middle Earth with his The Hobbit trilogy. All these films packed remarkable visual and technical punch, but fell short of his LOTR success. That can certainly be said of his newest film: Mortal Engines.

Mortal Engines began life as a quartet of Phillip Reeve novels following a steam-punk, post apocalyptic version of London that now exists as a moving city trying to subsist in a dying world. It was published in 2001 and received critical acclaim. Peter Jackson acquired the film rights in 2009 and formally announced his work on a film adaptation of it in 2016. He would produce and write it while Christian Rivers, a long time Jackson collaborator, took the directors chair for the first time. The film released this weekend and highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a Jackson production.

Strengths first. This film looks amazing. The idea of steam-punk London is always a welcome concept and the wide landscape shots and active camera helps accentuate how excellent the production design is. The world is imaginative and shockingly believable for a concept as zany as “London on tank tracks”. There are plenty of jabs given to modern times for unsustainable living and addiction to technology. WingNut Films (Jackson’s Company) did a phenomenal job creating a visually engaging and beautiful movie.

Acting wise, Hugo Weaving steals the show. The veteran actor and frequent fantasy/science fiction star carries much of the film with his typical philosophical speeches and sharp tongue. Add this to an extensive cataloge of strong performances.

Beyond Weaving, Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmar are good as the leads. Neither are exceptional, but both are likeable and relatable. Both do a good job with the material and work well in the roles. South Korean star Jihae Kim is entertaining as a tough and cool fighter who can fly close to over-powered, but is fun enough to overlook said concerns.

Stephen Lang plays Shrike, a resurrected man using futuristic technology who is the most interesting character conceptually in the film. His existence raises questions about how far medicine and technology can go before destroying a person’s psyche and identity. It’s not new for science fiction, but Shrike is intimidating and surprisingly heart-felt, carrying the lionshare of heart and depth. He is my favorite part of the film in concept, look, and excecution.

Sadly, beyond Shrike, this is a painfully cookie-cutter script. If you’ve seen a science fiction or fantasy film at some point before, you’ll be able to predict the story beats and tell what character arcs will be when introduced to someone new. The structure is straightforward and surprisingly simplistic for this premise. And still, the pacing feels mixed at times. It cuts between different, concurrently happening stories, a la Lord of the Rings. However, some stories are significantly more engaging. Time spent in London is either curious and engaging or a painful slog especially with a few characters the film introduces and does nothing with. Scenes in the great beyond can be engaging when Shrike is involved or standard and predictable with every other character. Rivers does not pace this film well or work around a plot lacking for depth and complexity.

The other big problem I see is the action. The flying sequences feel like steam-punk Star Wars and are good for what they are. They’re just derivative. The hand-to-hand combat feature the biggest problems: overly fast cuts and zoomed in camera angles cut off much of the action, limiting what the viewer sees. Action should be filmed to be seen and understood, not in tight to get the audience in the middle of the action. Seeing the action is always more effective than feeling it.

The film’s soundtrack also feels familiar. Dutch DJ Junkie XL provides the score. He’s also done the music for Deadpool, Mad Max:Fury Road, and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. His credentials are unimpeachable in modern film scoring. Sadly, while his work is again good and servicable, that’s all it is. No piece of music gripped me or stuck in my mind after the film. It just hits me as another good film scoring and nothing more.

Ultimately, Mortal Engines is a fun film with excellent visuals, some interesting moral questions, and good acting. But it’s weighed down by a simplistic structure, predictable dialogue, and poorly shot action. It captures both Peter Jackson’s strenghts, great production design and imagery, and weaknesses, underwhelming story and dialogue. I’d say give it a watch if you like the genre or director. But if you want depth here, you might be disappointed.