Permit me a moment of chronological snobbery: I was a fan of this film’s source books long, long before they were even a gleam in Peter Jackson’s eye. Philip Reeve’s “Hungry City Chronicles” are original, well-written tales that capture the imagination—as is this movie. I’m happy to report that one should ignore the bad Rotten Tomatoes reviews: “Mortal Engines” is mostly a triumph, one that successfully couples strong characters with a genuinely original aesthetic vision.
It’s somewhere around the year 3118. Following a devastating nuclear war, humanity’s survivors have grouped themselves into gigantic “Traction Cities”—mobile settlements constructed on caterpillar treads, which pillage smaller hamlets for precious resources. And within the rolling monstrosity that is London, archaeologist Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) is putting the finishing touches on a weapon that will allow London to dominate the wastes of Europe. He’s opposed by Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a vengeful, badly scarred young woman with a mysterious past, and aspiring historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan).
From there, things escalate into glorious wackiness. We encounter Anna Fang, a tough-as-nails, gender-nonconforming Asian female aviator (Jihae). We meet the Terminator-like zombie cyborg Shrike (Stephen Lang), a virtually indestructible colossus hellbent on reuniting with Hester, his former protege. We visit the floating city of Airhaven and a makeshift slave market. On and on it goes, building towards a final chaotic carnival of steampunk energy. It’s quite a ride—in the best of ways.
While its narrative beats are familiar, its characters aren’t. Hester in particular is a fascinating figure—from the start she’s fierce and aloof, perfectly capable of fending for herself in a hostile world. There’s no hint here of the stereotypical flatness of so many action heroines: her story isn’t collapsed into a man’s arc, and she doesn’t achieve self-realization through romance. She’s independent, interesting, and seems like a real person. (One wishes Hester, and not Jyn Erso, had been the protagonist of “Rogue One.”)
On a more reflective note: although Reeve is professedly secular, crucial elements of his work belie that description. Consider by contrast the case of Philip Pullman (to whose books Reeve’s novels’ are often compared). Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy was a calculated secular deconstruction of Narnia and its ilk, undergirded by a full-fledged humanistic vision of the cosmos. Yet notwithstanding his clumsy critique of religious fervor in the prequel novel “A Web of Air,” Reeve largely rejects this kind of allegory. And in so doing, he embraces multiple plot points that are curiously inconsistent with his own secularism. Shrike’s character arc, for instance, assumes a fundamental difference between humans and machines. But as someone like Daniel Dennett would be sure to point out, that sort of thinking doesn’t fit well with Reeve’s self-professed worldview. Nor does Reeve’s critique of the “Municipal Darwinism” philosophy espoused by his villains—that large cities ought to ingest and assimilate smaller ones in the name of movement, progress, evolution. Apart from any notion of final causes or ends, isn’t this precisely how all history unfolds? Reeve’s themes, in short, are at odds with his beliefs.
All that said, my one major beef with “Mortal Engines” is its dialogue, which all too often has an unfortunate B-movie quality to it. More than once, evocative, well-shot scenes are overlaid with frustratingly expository commentary. Subtlety, though, has never been producer Jackson’s forte—and by the time the plot reaches the boiling point, one is willing to look past a few clunker phrases. So be it.
So is it worth seeing?
In short, “Mortal Engines” is the sort of sprawling, offbeat adventure I wish Hollywood would make more often. In an era of endless superhero sequels, “Star Wars” spinoffs, and reincarnated Disney classics, it’s nice to see something that defiantly asserts a different identity. It might not win any Oscars, but it’s real fun. And sometimes, that’s enough.