film & game reviews, the retro way.
Based on the first part of Philip Reeve's popular series of books, Mortal Engines is a Peter Jackson-produced sci-fi film set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where what's left of cities roll around on giant tanks trying to take each other over.
Like a cross between the Mad Max films, City Of Ember and Wild Wild West, Mortal Engines follows a mobile London, co-led by the authoritarian Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), as it tracks down cities, swallowing them whole, before it sets off to China (aka Shan Guo) where Valentine plans to use a doomsday machine in order to destroy its walls and take over all the static settlements there. Throughout this, a mysterious masked woman known as Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) attempts to assassinate Valentine with the help of apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), as a murderous zombie android (played by Stephen Lang) tracks them down.
You got all that?
Mortal Engines continues the proud tradition of cool-looking steampunk films doing extremely poorly at the box-office. Indeed, with a budget of nearly $150M, Mortal Engines did not even manage to gather half of that and it was one of the biggest flops of 2018. Though this was partly due to poor (read: zero) marketing and a lack of star power in terms of the leads, critics weren't too keen on the movie either as it certainly has its share of blatant problems.
There's a very... Wachowski approach to this movie from the get-go, from the inflated budget to the casting of Hugo Weaving, the heavy anime influence and the cartoonishly grand scale. And, just like most of the Wachowski sisters' less successful films, Mortal Engines is fascinating, beautiful, very entertaining and, at times, quite good but also, regrettably, fatally flawed. There are tons of cool ideas in there but also lazy writing and the two do not gel, to say the least.
The opening chase sequence is easily one of the most fun and visually impressive scenes of any movie that year: it's the embodiment of everything that's right with this movie and what it could/should have been. You can tell this is an expensive film whenever an action scene kicks in, all of which are actually really enjoyable, but once the engines stop the film turns into a dull TV movie and the budget disappears into a Terry Gilliam-sized black hole. The ham-fisted writing really is this film's Achilles Heel and the mostly solid cast often struggles to make the corny dialog work. The two leads sadly lack charisma and a subplot involving Valentine's daughter should have frankly been excised for time.
While Mortal Engines had a lot more to offer than critics or audiences gave it credit for, it's hard to deny how irritating its more tedious elements are. Worth a watch for the visuals and Stephen Lang's creepy bot alone, this is one of those cinematic failures that will no doubt sit proudly next to the likes of Waterworld as a corny yet often fun trainwreck destined for cult recognition.