by Cat McAlpine
As the credits rolled, I turned to my friend and said, with horror, “I think that would’ve been better…as a trilogy.”
What’s that? You’ve had your fill of YA Dystopian trilogies? You’re damn right.
But Mortal Engines suffers from the age-old curse of having a book’s worth of content in a single movie. And while that movie is OVER TWO HOURS LONG, it still feels overstuffed with backstories and subplots around the basic premise: large, predator cities on wheels roam the landscape consuming weaker cities.
It starts off well.
Okay. That’s a lie. It starts off with an exposition voice over providing bare minimum world-building that we get again in dialogue, not 10 minutes later.
Then, it starts off well. We’re treated to an opening high speed chase that delightfully plays like the bastard child of Howl’s Moving Castle and Mad Max: Fury Road that Mortal Engines so desperately wants to be.
Robert Sheehan is effortlessly lovable as Tom. Hera Hilmer is brooding and feral as Hester Shaw. And to the credit of both, Tom and Hester have some sputtering chemistry. There’s just nothing in the script to support a real connection between them. Which leaves Hugo Weaving to shine as he savors his villainous role, simplified though it is, as Thaddeus Valentine, .
With fun action sequences, CGI that melds almost seamlessly with the set, and a rousing score the movie is set up for success. Despite director Christian Rivers’s best efforts, ultimately the script just isn’t good. Penned by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson (who also produced) the Mortal Engines script stuffs so much context into two hours that it all but abandons real character development. And decent dialogue.
The ending of the Mortal Engines novel, the first in a series of four, is much more emotionally complicated than that of the film. The film, in fact, is painfully predictable. The more I investigate the source material (thanks Wikipedia) the more it seems the writers have sacrificed all the wrong parts of this story to make it more marketable.
Mortal Engines has a lot to say about colonialism, class struggles, capitalism, environmentalism, life after death, the will to live, and the courage to love. But it’s boiled all of its points down to catchphrases delivered in passing by characters whose names you can’t remember.
The whole b plot and an easy five supporting character could’ve been cut to give this story room to breathe. Instead, supporting characters randomly disappear to never be heard from again. An additional tragic backstory adds a full 40 minutes (give or take). These moving parts fill out a novel; they bloat a two hour adaptation.
Every time a new wonder was unveiled—an elevator made from the London Eye or a city floating among the clouds—I giggled with glee. Every time someone opened their mouths, I rolled my eyes. Mortal Engines exists in a fascinating and bizarre world, but we’re never really given the opportunity to fall in love with that world.