Yup, it’s (yet) another young adult novel adaptation. But of all the various dystopian, post-apocalyptic scenarios addressed on film – alien/monster invasion, zombie apocalypse, tyrannical government – Mortal Engines certainly has one of the more intriguing ones.
Based on the novels by Philip Reeve, it’s set in a future where the world has been torn apart by geological events like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In order to survive, London has been fitted with engines and wheels, using technology that is quickly adopted by other cities around the world.
The English capital then turns into a roving predator of a city, consuming smaller and weaker cities for energy. Trouble comes when it consumes the small town of Salthook at the behest of bad guy Thaddeus Valentine (the always reliable Hugo Weaving, but playing one of his least impressive villains). Little does he know that the town also contains the mysterious
Katniss Everdeen Tris Prior Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), a mysterious young woman who is out for revenge.
It’s at this point that the problem with the Mortal Engines adaptation becomes clear: it’s taken three paragraphs just to introduce the set up for the movie, and we’re not even done yet. While this reviewer has not read the Mortal Engines books, the synopsis alone suggests that they can rival Game of Thrones as an exercise in world building.
And therein lies the rub: while the books address weighty themes such as technology, Darwinism and colonialism, it is nigh-on impossible to fit all this into a two hour movie. Even with the team behind Lord of the Rings – Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson – writing the screenplay, so much time is spent on exposition that the narrative becomes confused and confusing. There are also pacing issues, with one chase sequence after another in quick succession.
It tries really, really hard to be an epic, but it all ends up as a steampunk Star Wars wannabe, and a bad one at that. And if you’re not sure what that means, just think of the major plot points of the original Star Wars and you’ll know how Mortal Engines turns out.
There are good things about the movie – the moving cities really are a sight to behold, and the sets and costumes look amazing. Unfortunately, the central duo of Shaw and apprentice historian
Peeta Mellark Four Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) are, well, neither terribly charismatic nor interesting. Despite extended sequences telling her tragic backstory, it’s hard to get too excited about Hester’s journey.
Enter the real star of the show: one Anna Fang (played with verve and charisma by South Korean actress Jihae), who is like, a badass rebel against…something.
She comes to Hester and Tom’s aid and also does lots of cool shit like run around and wear sunglasses and fire a really cool gun and…that’s about it. While Fang is easily the most intriguing character in Mortal Engines, there is almost no depth to her. Her past is only broadly hinted at and her screen time is limited.
At the end of it all, you can’t help but come away with a feeling that Mortal Engines could have been so much more. Early reviews of the movie have already been split, which leaves the possibility of a sequel in doubt. Perhaps it would have been better served by a Netflix adaptation.
Mortal Engines opens in Singapore today. Tell us what you think of the movie!