I paid $7.99 to watch Mortal Engines at home on my TV. The film is like some people you may have met. It’s beautiful. It’s as dumb as a box of rocks.
It was a Saturday night and I enjoyed a nice vodka drink while I was watching, which is how I recommend anyone who wants to see this steampunk fantasy watch it. Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, both closely associated with The Lord of the Rings films, were heavily involved (Jackson bought the rights to the book and was a producer; he and Boyens cowrote the screenplay.) The film runs over two and a half hours, but be thankful; this is Jackson – it could have dieseled on for another hour. And frankly “dieseling” would not be the wrong verb.
It starts, as many bad movies do, with voice-over narration. Okay, that’s unfair. Many fantasy films have to start with a screen-crawl or narration to set the scene for the alternate world. In this alternate world, a thousand years ago, the Ancients created the 60-minute war, destroyed their civilization and ruptured the earth’s crust. Yikes! Evidence later presented strongly indicates that “the Ancients” were us. Now, in a supposedly altered world, cities mounted on huge tank-treads roam the countryside, harpooning and “ingesting” smaller wheeled settlements. Picture giant cannibalistic parade floats.
Hester is on a “small Bavarian mining town” on treads that gets eaten by the city of London – yes, that’s right, London. London “crossed the land bridge” and is now rolling around greater Europe (I guess?) wreaking havoc. I assume Parade Float London wouldn’t fit through the chunnel. Anyway, London harpoons the cute little wheeled stage-set thing she’s on, reels it in, pulls off all the people and starts breaking down the town as fuel for the thing that powers London. Thaddeus Valentine, who’s a London bigwig (and the villain) comes down to the lower levels to scavenge for “ancient tech,” and Hester tries to stab him. Which was her plan all along! She meant to get captured! Valentine killed her mother and she wants revenge!
Meanwhile, on rolling London we meet Katherine Valentine, the villain’s
scholarly daughter, and the handsome Tom, the co-hero… and some swarmy
upper-class guy who’s name I don’t know. Kind of a minion, anyway. Tom also
goes to the lower levels to scavenge tech. He saves Valentine from being killed
(which—drat! Because then the movie would have been over.) He chases Hester through
a series of weird CGI tunnels that Spouse and I thought at first were part of
the processing plant for fuel. Turns out they’re not. Hester tells him that
Valentine murdered her mother, then jumps to her death. Valentine shows up. Tom
tells him what Hester said, and Valentine shoves Tom off the balcony down into
the gaping maw that Hester leaped into, to his death. Only we know they aren’t
really dead because it’s only the first ten minutes of the movie.
From there we get a series of adventures that want to be connected. On London, we learn more about Valentine’s dastardly plan, not to power the city of London as he has said, but to go invade a bunch of “tractionless cities” behind a great wall – or should I write, a Great Wall –with a re-created Ancient doomsday weapon called Medusa, because what could possibly go wrong? Katherine starts to get suspicious and partners with a lower-class guy whose name I don’t know either who was a friend of Tom’s, and they suss out the weapon.
Meanwhile, Hester and Tom slog through the giant tread tracks, escape one group of slavers from the south (“the south” being a clue for a sequel, I think) only to fall into the hands of another batch of slavers. By the way, the slavers make fun of Hester’s looks because she has a scar on her face.
While Hester is being auctioned off, she and Tom are rescued by Anna “Wind-flower” Fong, a “tractionless city” activist. Rather than discuss Anna, well-played by K-pop star Jihai, I’ll just quote some dialogue between Spouse and me:
Spouse: Isn’t this a steampunk movie?
Me: Kinda, yeah.
Spouse: She’s totally cyberpunk. Look at those glasses. She’s in the wrong movie.
Me: Shhhh! Don’t say that! She’ll go away and then there will be no one interesting to watch.
Only! They aren’t completely rescued because there’s this android guy
called “Shrike” who lurches around yelling “Hester,” only it’s “Hesss-tarrrr!” like he’s a leftover from Talk
Like a Pirate Day.
By the way, now might be a good time to insert one of many, many world-building problems. Theoretically, the earth’s crust is badly damaged and there are no resources, which is why cities roll around on tractor treads (disregarding how much energy that expends). While Hester and Tom are on the run, we see several shots of forests, snow-capped peaks and oceans. The earth’s surface actually looks pretty good except for those gigantic tread marks bollixing everything up.
Somehow, Parade Float London has fuel for a bunch of long-and-short-range flyers along with everything else. London also has a prison that walks on stilts and follows them around (I guess?) which had been holding Shrike, only Valentine let Shrike out and then destroyed the prison for no good reason except he’s the villain.
Valentine did kill Hester’s mother Pandora, who discovered a box of ancient tech (get it? Pandora? Box?), but before she died she managed to give Hester a necklace that’s Very Important. Hester tried to fight Valentine and he slashed her face, giving her the scar; she ran into the marshes (because water, like oxygen, arable land and vegetation, is not a problem) where Shrike found her and raised her. Shrike’s hobby, if androids or “resurrected men,” can have hobbies, is refurbishing creepy doll heads that are amazingly undamaged after a thousand years. He wanted to turn Hester into an android, but she said “no” and ran away; hence, the Shrike subplot.
Another snippet of dialogue will demonstrate some of the world-building problems:
Me: How come London’s the only city rampaging around? We don’t see Paris behaving badly. Or Madrid.
Spouse: Madrid can’t make it over the Pyrenees.
Honestly, the Shrike subplot probably worked out well in the book. Probably lots of things in this unbelievable world worked better in the book. For instance, an actual relationship probably really does develop between Hester and Tom. Back on the parade float, Katherine probably really does struggle as her discoveries make her question her loyalty to her father. Possibly even the concept of parade float cities is explained in a way that is mildly plausible.
Anyway, if I tell you the story is about Valentine building the weapon and rolling London right up to the Great Wall of the East, and that Wind-flower has a flying machine and Hester has a magical necklace that is connected to the weapon, you can probably figure out what happens.
If I tell you that Pandora Shaw, Hester’s mother, worked for Valentine, and then tell you there’s a secret about who Hester’s father is that is saved until very late in the movie, can you guess what it is? Can you?
The “surface” of the film – plotting, characterization, world-building – is so skimpy that it doesn’t even leave time for some of the deeper, unsettling problems; the whiteness of the population; the Good Asians behind the wall, the refugee questions. Maybe these are addressed in the books.
A film about rolling cities that actually had a story, a plot and character motivations would open the way for a discussion about privilege and complicity, and might even leave us wondering why the people behind the wall are Good Asians and why there are so few people of color aboard Parade Float London… but this movie too thin to get us there. If you want a compelling actioner about rolling societies, watch Mad Mad; Fury Road and then the parade scene in the comic classic Animal House.
Oh, here’s a weird problem; the soundtrack was actually intrusive!
Is anything good about the movie? Yes. See my first paragraph. The sets and the CGI are gorgeous. It is an effects-aganza. If you like Big FX films, and you have a large screen TV, get the adult beverage of your choice and settle in. Performances aren’t terrible although they can’t save it. Hugo Weaving, who plays Valentine, doesn’t really start chowing down on the scenery until the final quarter of the film. The film cast Very Pretty People (they don’t get much prettier than the guy who plays Tom). Anna, or Wind-flower, has a beautiful flying device.
For this film, the way to watch it is with zero expectations, a fellow watcher who loves to mock bad movies, and a drink in your hand. Maybe make it a double.