clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mortal Engines’ eye-popping spectacle makes up for a flimsy plot

The team behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy returns for a story set in a dystopian future.

Hera Hilmar plays Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines.
Hera Hilmar plays Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It is way, way into the future. Following a cataclysmic event now called the “Sixty Minute War,” much of Earth’s population lives under a system called “Municipal Darwinism.” And man, it is bleak.

“Traction cities” on wheels roam most of the earth, consuming its resources and, for the larger ones at least, consuming smaller cities as well. One of the largest of these cities is London, where historians sift through debris collected from the “ancient ones” — that’s us! — as the rest of the population goes about their business, gathering on the city’s outer limits to cheer whenever it is about to capture another, smaller city.

Municipal Darwinism isn’t the rule everywhere, though — just in the West. And the leaders in the West know they can’t go on like this forever. Without preservation and renewal, the Earth’s resources will run out eventually. In the traction cities, much of the planet’s population is living in a kind of new Middle Ages. But they seem in danger of bringing about a dark time again, real soon.

That’s the premise of Mortal Engines, based on Philip Reeve’s 2001 YA novel of the same name, the first in a series. (Reeve drew the title from a line in Othello.) It’s depressing, but it makes for a pretty eye-popping movie, set in a steampunky dystopian future.

With a screenplay written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens — that is, the team behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy — and directed by Christian Rivers, who worked on the visual effects for those films, Mortal Engines is visually spectacular, if a bit derivative. It’s a social allegory that goes for broke. And while it’s hardly a groundbreaking movie, it’s still pretty fun.

Hugo Weaving plays London mastermind Thaddeus Valentine in Mortal Engines.
Hugo Weaving plays London mastermind Thaddeus Valentine in Mortal Engines.
Universal Pictures

Mortal Engines’ story is about young people trying to stop the destruction of the world

When Mortal Engines begins, the traction city of London is already a resource hog. It rolls around the decimated plains of Europe, scooping up mining towns, assimilating their populations into its own, harvesting useful artifacts, and then mashing the smaller cities between its giant internal gears to transform them into fuel for its giant furnaces.

The city has an official ruler, but it’s effectively run by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a patrician authoritarian who’s been working for a long time on what he says is a project for generating alternative energy. He’s been slowly collecting the advanced technology of the ancients — especially the kind that used to power nuclear weapons.

His daughter, Katherine (Leila George), has befriended an affable young historian named Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), who has a fondness for artifacts from the ancient world. One day, Tom meets Thaddeus as he’s rooting through the trash from a new town that’s been swallowed up by London. But as they’re talking, someone emerges from the crowd of newly captured people and stabs Thaddeus, saying, “This is for my mother!”

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines.
Hester Shaw is on a mission.
Universal Pictures

Thaddeus lives. But in the chase that follows, both the would-be assassin and Tom seem as if they may have died after plummeting from a bridge.

This is where the real action in Mortal Engines starts. Tom and the assassin resurface, and the latter turns out to be a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), whose deceased archaeologist mother played a fateful role in the future of the human race, and Thaddeus’s plans for it in particular.

In the days that follow, Tom and Hester race to figure out just what those plans are and what their repercussions may be. They experience several brushes with death, complicated by a brutal creature that seems to be chasing Hester and hell-bent on her destruction. They also have a run-in with an anti-traction resistance led by Anna Fang (Jihae).

And, well, a lot more stuff happens. Mortal Engines is not just a movie; it is a lot of movie. It’s filled to the point of overflowing with stories, challenges, mysteries, and spectacle — some of which make for a more compelling film than others. But it may be Mortal Engines’ very maximalism that makes it watchable: You’re never quite sure what wild new contraption will show up next.

Anna Fang (played by Jihae) is a badass.
Anna Fang (played by Jihae) is a badass.
Universal Pictures

Mortal Engines works because its world is richly imagined

The best part of any sort of science fiction or dystopian future movie, for my money, is the world-building. And Mortal Engines fleshes its world out rapidly and with gusto, right from the start. It resembles, in some ways, the (better) world of Mad Max: Fury Road — a world in which resources are scarce and class privileges are stratified, where technologies from the past are being adapted and combined to do new, exciting, and possibly dangerous things, and where danger lurks around every corner.

The result is an alluring place to spend time in, and it’s wonderfully designed. (I’d love to get a peek at the concept art for this film.) One sequence set in a fleet of airborne vehicles is especially dazzling: brightly colored, elegant, imaginative, everything a film like this needs to make you suspend disbelief. It’s the kind of setting that makes more conventional story beats and predictable fight sequences more interesting, which works in Mortal Engines’ favor.

Whatever its faults as a story, Mortal Engines is eyepoppingly beautiful.
Whatever its faults as a story, Mortal Engines is eye-poppingly beautiful.
Universal Pictures

The movie is also trying to say something about the rich, the poor, and the West’s wanton consumption of resources, including people. It’s set in the future, but it’s obviously a take on the 21st century, and it gets in a few digs at our time — most notably with the film’s only real joke. I won’t spoil it, but I also found it so startlingly out of place that I couldn’t help but laugh.

The idea that human history is doomed to basically repeat itself again and again, creating civilizations and then wrecking them through greed, is hardly a new one. You can find versions of this idea in ancient religions and in modern sci-fi. One of the classic texts of science fiction — the 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, written during the Cold War — even theorizes that the apocalypse and then humanity’s regeneration will have something to do with nuclear power’s ability to both foster and destroy life.

Mortal Engines goes there too, though by its end, the film has tapped into some characterizations of East versus West that seem a tad like the kind of wishful thinking you might get from a Westerner’s fetishization of the peaceful, Zen-like wisdom of the East. As an action-packed, gorgeous-looking dystopian film about young adults and the future of society, however, it’s certainly watchable. And as a vision of the future — one that looks quite a bit like our consumption-obsessed present — it’s fittingly uncomfortable.

Mortal Engines opens in theaters on December 14.