There are a million stories in the moving, predatory city. This is just the most boring and predictable one.
The eye-popping 2018 steampunk fantasy Mortal Engines has a premise so out there and hair-brained that it could have worked. In the distant future, after an apocalypse caused by a mysterious “quantum power” weapon levels the cities of earth in something called the 60 Minute War, cities have gone mobile. You heard that right, cities are built on giant wheel and tread systems and these behemoths crush across vast plains in search of resources. The story starts on board a stunningly detailed, Victorian-looking, diesel-powered monstrosity carrying our hero Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). But if you thought this city was big, here comes London, a giant gleaming leviathan, the apex of predator cities, with a verdant courtyard and St. Paul’s Cathedral at its crown for pomp and scale.
It’s immediately apparent that these are physically impossible structures and that the sheer amount of energy and engineering needed to sustain them would defeat any advantage they might have. And if that’s the case, that’s fine. I’m willing to let this film take me in some direction in which the possible metaphorical meaning of these cities (urban vs. rural economies, Britain’s history of Imperial rule, a commentary on Brexit perhaps) might emerge to give me something, anything, to chew on. Instead, there are a few offhanded references to something called Municipal Darwinism (fancy words!), and the rest is pretty much Star Wars on wheels. One gets the impression that this is a dystopia a younger Terry Gilliam could have built into something nasty and allegorical. As it stands, the most interesting and transfixing thing about the film ends up being Hugo Weaving’s beard.
The film is not entirely without worth, however. The level of detail on these predator cities is quite the spectacle. Even if in the back of the mind the whole endeavor doesn’t make much sense, these giants clang and whir along with something that often looks like engineering fidelity. The level of detail is astonishing. If you came simply for the joy of seeing steampunk gadgetry with a decent layer of CG and practical patina (which, I must admit, I kinda did) then you’re in luck. The third act is a series of great cockpit shots that, if you’ve given up on the story as I had, you can just take in the sumptuous detail of rivets, wires, and blinking lights. (You’ll need something to get you through the 2+ hour run time.) Also, there’s a surprisingly short but satisfying appearance of Frankie Adams from the Expanse series.
The closest the film comes to having a beating heart is the story of Shrike (Steven Lang), a misunderstood killing machine without a heart of his own. But, much like Shrike, the film is loud but bloodless. Mortal Engines contents itself to the clockwork formula of so many fantasy action films before it. This thing must have taken an army of animators and designers, it’s too bad such a gargantuan feat as this pursues its quarry in territory so well tread. | Mike McCubbins
Mortal Engines is streaming through the end of the month on HBO. If you’re reading this and it’s no longer March 2020, find out where you can find it at ReelGood.com. Click here to read Caleb Sawyer’s review from the film’s original 2018 release date.