Peter Jackson has a penchant for adapting books into film. The director of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies has made thirteen movies since 2001. Eleven of those films are based on books. If you were to ask people I would imagine that they would say, given his experience, if anyonecan make a good adaptation film, it is Peter Jackson. Lord of the Rings was a daunting project that few have ever tried to adapt. Jackson’s Return of the King alone won eleven Oscars. If you could have anyone turn your book into a blockbuster movie, you would want Jackson.
So suffice it to say, it is strange for me (after that introduction), to say that Mortal Engines feels like a messy book report.
Enter post-apocalyptic Europe. Humanity, hundreds of years ago, nearly wiped itself out with focused energy weapons that sent shockwaves rippling across the globe. In the interim between near annihilation and the opening scene of our film, civilization has separated into two factions, static cities and traction cities (or Predator Cities). Huge traction cities, like London, roam the world on giant treads hunting smaller traction cities (hence the name Predator Cities) and “digesting” them for their resources.
This is all given to you in the film’s first twenty minutes.
I was immediately intrigued with the premise, despite the somewhat hasty nature of the exposition. Apocalypse event, check. Period after where survivors fight wars, check. Giant moving cities, check. If there was a moment I was most excited during Mortal Engines it was here.
What followed in the 128 minutes of the film was a beautifully plain, excitingly hollow movie about a boy and a girl of wildly different persuasions falling in love while the remaining world is crashing towards doom.
Mortal Engines is a visually stimulating film, even when it isn’t brilliantly shot. The giant city of London is hulking and violently representative of its leader and antagonist of the film Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, Lord of the Rings). The massive metropolis is a delight to look at when given the time to actually just look at it. Layers and layers of city rest stacked upon one another, all housing a titanic motor at the core. Airships are creatively structured, static cities like Shan Guo are beautifully architected, and the character designs seem straight out of RPG video games.
All of this, however does little to combat the strange pacing and sometimes cringeworthy corniness of the plot and script. Mortal Engines liberally uses the “pull-in, one-liner” camera angle, awkwardly framing its actor’s faces for lines that are frequently bland or rote. “How will I know when to go in?” Asks one character. One-liner zoom. “Oh you’ll know, I’m not subtle.” No. No you are not. In so many ways.
The acting is endearing at times. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, Ordinary Man) and Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, Fortitude, Misfits) are both well equipped for their roles and deliver above average performances. I feel the script fails this film more than anything else. The movie is riddled with questionable character choices, strange motivational shifts, and – in one case – a strategic design decision so bafflingly poor I literally tilted my head during the film and asked, “What?”
Yet, despite all of this grumbling I still left the theater unable to shake the thought that, in the end, I liked this film. For all of its doomsday mood and plot it still comes across as hopeful and optimistic. It is by and large a visually stunning film with large set pieces and even larger wide-shot environments. And there really is something pleasing about its overall design aesthetic. Still, a lot of parts and components feel like they are missing from Mortal Engines, and for fans of the books that will be an alarming thing to hear. Character arcs are cut very short, altered, or changed entirely. Mortal Engines is book one in a four book series, but there seems to be little desire to continue the story. It feels weird that Peter Jackson, the man who turned The Hobbit (only about twenty pages shorter) into three movies, took elements from several Mortal Engines novels and condensed them into one film.
I don’t think fans of the books will be entirely pleased with this adaptation, but there is fun to be had inside Mortal Engines, you just have to check a few things at the door. | Caleb Sawyer