Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Mortal Engines

Wasteland revisited, yet again…


Universal Pictures

I propose a Museum of Cinematic Insufficiency. A place devoted to the most overhyped pictures (Argo, First Man), the most puzzlingly still-employed performers (Gerard Butler, Sam Worthington), things like that. Naturally, there would also be a hall dedicated to Fizzled Franchise Launchers—movies concocted at ridiculous expense in the hope of spawning multiple sequels, but which instead hit a wall of public indifference and crumple to the ground. You know: The Last Airbender, John Carter, The Golden Compass. And now…

I don't want to say the new Mortal Engines is a witless classic along the lines of those films. It has some energy and some memorable images. If only it had more of those things, and less of all the clutter and noise that otherwise distinguish it.

This is not a Peter Jackson movie, if that's what you may have thought. It's a Peter Jackson-adjacent movie, adapted by the hobbity auteur and his longtime collaborators, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens, from a fantasy novel—the first in a series of four—by Philip Reeve. The project was then passed off to Jackson protégé Christian Rivers, who won an Oscar for the effects work on his mentor's 2005 King Kong and is here presenting us with his first feature. He is a master of digital animation, for sure—although by the time this movie shuffles past the two-hour mark, you're not likely to care much about that anymore.

The story, which is rather complicated and heavily bedecked with exposition, is set in yet another of those post-apocalyptic dystopias that looks like 200 miles of bad road stretched out under a blazing outland sun (we're in New Zealand, of course). This is all that's left after a "Sixty Minute War" trashed the planet 1100 years ago. In the centuries since then, humankind has somehow (but how?) managed to take whole major cities—London is the "traction city" we're concerned with here—and mount them on tank treads and then drive them around the dismal flatlands in search of other cities to eat. Or, more precisely, to suck into huge mechanical maws and strip of their assets. ("Old tech" is especially prized, particularly "weapons grade," although ancient broken toasters and cracked iPhones are also happily scarfed up and set out for display in the British Museum—which is of course right on board).

Apart from Jackson regular Hugo Weaving—here playing Thaddeus Valentine, a science bigwig who conducts mysterious experiments in St. Paul's Cathedral, high atop the giant London-mobile—the rest of the cast is relatively little-known. Which is okay, since most of the characters they play are shuffled around so briskly they have virtually no room to register. Valentine has a bland daughter on whom he dotes (Leila George), but she and her boyfriend/buddy/whatever, the oddly monikered Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery), are pure pudding, and offer little support for the movie's central couple, an obscurely motivated young interloper named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and annoyingly puppylike museum historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan). Hilmar, whose character is intent on killing Valentine for some reason, has a fresh, spunky energy; but Sheehan is a young actor of very little charisma, which leaves a large hole at the center of the movie.

Fortunately, there are two memorable characters. One is a towering robo-killer called Shrike (an unrecognizable Stephen Lang), who has a bizarre and long-running relationship with Hester and in the end brings some unexpected heart to the proceedings. The other is an exotic air pirate named Anna Fang (South Korean pop musician Jihae), who in her zero-cool shades and the fabulous crimson plane she docks at a hovering sky city, strongly recalls the 2004 sci-fi mini-classic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (a movie I'd recommend before recommending this one).

As a work of action filmmaking, the picture isn't a lot more than the sum of its appropriations: the Mad Max overtones, the Miyazaki echoes, the Star Wars references all over the place. It's also over-stuffed with instructional dialogue. Contemplating Earth's golden-age civilization of yore and its present-day ruin, one character says, "How can a society so advanced be so stupid?" Says another, "What have we done?" Says a third, possibly confused, "We should never have gone to Europe."

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  1. I wonder what a crawling London will do once it’s run out of other cities to absorb. Develop flotation tanks and head for Normandy? Expand the Chunnel and sneak in?

    Doesn’t sound like much of a sequel either.

    1. In a dystopian future where cities have gone mobile to attack each other, a London that has not taken to the high seas is a missed opportunity. The British have always been a maritime power.

      I’m not sure why I can accept the fantasy premise of a Tolkien, Star Wars, Star Trek, or the MCU, while I watch the trailer for this movie and just think of how ridiculous the idea of a mobile city would be, but here I am with that exact set of opinions. Maybe there is an uncanny valley of sci-fi hardness. If so, this movie is sitting in the bottom of it.

      I wonder what kind of gas mileage a mobile London would get?

      1. Tolkein set his story in a different world (or a version of earth so ancient it might as well be), and in spite of it’s fantastical aspects, much of is grounded in a world familiar to ours, physics works the same way, and it’s internally consistent.

        Star Wars (original trilogy) is also set in futuristic (yes technically the past) setting where you can accept the fantastical aspects and the tech advancements can be written off as advanced civilization stuff. Plus, the story telling is so good that the tech stuff falls into the background.

        Same with Start Trek. You can look at the advancements in tech over the last 200 years, or the last 50, and trick your brain into thinking that in the next 500 years we could do some of this stuff.

        But this story just seems, well, impractical, as you point out. If the tech and resources exist to build mobile London, you have the resources to restore England back to its pre-war state.

        If the characters and story are compelling enough, none of this would matter. Just like the Force or immortal elves, or a ring that allows a dark angel to rule the world, or FTL travel doesn’t matter in other franchises. If the storytelling and characters aren’t good enough to capture your imagination or attention, your mind starts paying attention to the hard sci fi stuff.

        1. The problem with this kind of fantasy tech is its inefficiency. Steampunk imagines personal Babbage computers. People at the dawn of steam railroads imagine personal steam engines. Those things are possible, after a fashion, but so inefficient that they will never happen.

          Reality overtakes imagination. That’s what’s wrong with crawling cities — we know inherently how inefficient that would be. Whether or not technology could ever make it possible, there is no imaginable way to make it efficient, and it has none of the cuteness factor of steampunk personal Babbage engines.

      2. You’re right your willing suspension of disbelief is pretty weak. Those are all far fetched, a steampunk mobile city isn’t any less believable. I just can’t wait til someone gets smart enough to make some Warhammer 40k stories. Hnnng.

        1. Maybe.

          I would argue that a mobile steampunk city is more believable than wizards battling over the fate of a world filled with dragons, dwarves and elves. That’s why I analogized my problem here to the uncanny valley.

      3. I could suspend disbelief for a mobile city that crawled along searching for resources.

        A city that big, agile enough to catch a little go-kart town? Nope.

        If a semi was chasing a motorcycle the cycle would turn 180 and be out of sight before the truck could slow down enough to turn without rolling.

        Oh, and “resources” start with food, and rampaging around like that won’t get crops planted.

        1. Food doesn’t matter to this generation. It just shows up at Chipotle, always has, always will.

    2. what happens when they slip a cog or bust a sprocket?

      1. Mike from dirty jobs enters stage right, laughs his head off, and says “I told you so”.

    3. London is already roaming around continental Europe in the movie, and the fact that its pretty much out of other cities to eat forms the plot for the major antagonist lol

  2. Disappointing. The trailers looked pretty. :-/

    1. It was good popcorn movie. Don’t believe Loder, wait til it’s in the $2 movie locations though. Or catch a matinee and don’t buy popcorn/soda.

    2. Trailers looked hideous.
      I wouldn’t watch this on a 26 hour flight sitting next to Melissa McCarthy.

  3. Oh. I thought you meant the TV series Wasteland, which my friend Damon Lindelof worked on. In the unproduced finale, the entire cast jumped off the roof.

    1. Was Wasteland cancelled? I liked that show!

      I suppose I have a problem with Steam Punk narratives in general, but this one sees especially absurd. I don’t buy into the premise for even a second. Cities crawling around after each other like pirate ships? It’s easier to believe in magic.

      1. Agreed. I love sci-fi and fantasy of all types, but I can’t accept the premise of mobile cities.

        I’m definitely not going to pay $20 to see it in a movie theater.

        1. Who was that early SciFi author who had cities launching into space? They were at least more plausible than crawling cities.

          1. James Blish’s Okie novels.

          2. Cities in Flight, by James Blish

          3. Cities in Flight, by James Blish

        2. The minute I grasped cities-as-tanks plotline of this film, I rolled my eyes so hard that I nearly capsized Guam.

          I think you have to be a special kind of writer, one disconnected from basic realities of economics and physics, to think this is a good premise for a nuts and bolts action movie. Unless you’re going for arthouse a la Snowpiercer, another insufferably dumb movie.

          1. I think you have to be a special kind of writer

            I believe it was a YA novel. I got burned by The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games. Deep thoughts about or research into any kind of science doesn’t seem to be their strong points.

            1. or a special kind of stupid…

            2. or a special kind of stupid…

          2. When I saw the trailer, I immediately thought, “Oh no, it’s Snowpiercer on steroids.”

        3. who pays $20 to see a movie?

      2. Maybe there will be a cameo by the Crimson Permanent Assurance…


      3. spoken like a true Lovin Spoonful fan!

    2. But not the writer? The one guy we all want to take a long walk off a short pier.

  4. Unrealistic!

  5. Did anyone think they’d ever really make a movie about the infamous Crimson Chartered Accountancy?

    1. Crimson Permanent Assurance, you Philistine!

  6. I didn’t get past the fifteen seconds in the first preview before I said “nope, nope, nope, and nope”.

    I know this isn’t a Peter Jackson film, but it’s in his orbit. He hasn’t made a decent movie since the Two Towers. (Not that I did not say Return of the King). When he was a relative nobody he took it cautiously, but when there’s no one around to tell him “no” he invariably goes off the rails into silly excesses. Like sandworms at the Battle of Five Armies, or five whole minutes of brontosauri tripping over each other. And don’t get me started on giant penises eating Andy Serkis!

    I can imagine Christian Rivers starting out with a more sensible take on the fantasy novel, but then Peter Jackson counseling him “More stuff! More stuff!”


    1. What is your beef with RotK? I enjoyed it, not least of all for it’s digitally-enhanced cavalry charge on the Pelennor Fields. It obviously took some liberties with the source material, but it’s not the mess those Hobbit films turned into. Even by the standard of Hollywood-liberty-taking, it is remarkably true to the books.

      1. I would say the return of the Oathbreakers and ninja-Leglolas are problematic, but they don’t ruin the film for me.

        However, I have noticed that while I really enjoy sitting down with the first two LOTR films, I always find watching the third installment a chore for some reason – even when I spread out watching them over a few weekends.

      2. It wasn’t a bad movie, but neither was it great. They still managed to keep a lot of the silliness out during editing (the skulls), but it did hint that PJ needed someone to constantly whisper in his ear that he was mortal. The Story to Spectacle ratio was starting to shift

        You are right that it was nowhere close to the pile of shit that the Hobbit turned into. But it still was not up to the standards of FOTR or TT.

  7. dystopian, so for teenagers? looks cool, sounds shallow

  8. The premise is so over-the-top stupid that it can’t possibly make a good movie.

    1. Not for pretentious people who think they are movie aficionados and think twelve angry men is the peak of moviedom.

  9. This all started with Brexit… don’t forget that. Actually the movie isn’t bad for a popcorn flick. I don’t expect Shakespeare in my big loud shit goes boom darwinian municipal steampunk movies.

  10. The whole dystopia thing is so played out it is boring beyond belief.

    Honestly, it just shows how vapid Hollywood is in that they cannot seem to come up with anything else.

    1. soooo dystopic, most dystopic ever, can’t get over my dystopicty (sp?)

  11. In the centuries since then, humankind has somehow (but how?) managed to take whole major cities?London is the “traction city” we’re concerned with here?and mount them on tank treads and then drive them around the dismal flatlands in search of other cities to eat. Or, more precisely, to suck into huge mechanical maws and strip of their assets. (“Old tech” is especially prized, particularly “weapons grade,” although ancient broken toasters and cracked iPhones are also happily scarfed up and set out for display in the British Museum?which is of course right on board).

    This actually reads like a parody of the dystopian YA movie franchises.

  12. “… the resources to restore England back to its pre-war state.’ what a serious waste of fucking time, energy and material!

  13. Says a third, possibly confused, “We should never have gone to Europe.”

    Well, that part is sure right!

  14. It was a pretty popcorn flick. After the first half, it devolved into one cliche after another, and it all rests on a foundation of SJW east=good; west=bad. Every bad guy was white, every POC was good.

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  16. I thought First Man was a delightful movie–in spite of whutzisname wanting the spaceship plastered with “America, Love it or Leave it!” “Member, Silent Majority,” and “Four More Years!” bumper stickers.

  17. Y’all need to read some James Blish.
    When earths government turns despotic, all the worlds cities just up and leave!

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