Action Adventure

Review: ‘Mortal Engines’ is an Epic Piece of World-Building Stalled by Lackluster Writing

December 14, 2018Ferdosa Abdi

Mortal Engines has the potential to be a new thrilling and iconic franchise, however, it can't escape the shadow of similarly themed movies with better writing.

An adaptation of Philip Reeve's novel of the same name, Mortal Engines has an impressive cast and creative team, but they aren't enough to make the film stand out from other YA adaptations of the same genre. This latest entry in the YA dystopian craze follows Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) on her quest to avenge the death of her mother in a post-apocalyptic world. Mankind has been forced to live on mobile cities as the world has become uninhabitable after a destructive war that may have taken place in the 21st century. The fate of the world is now in Hester's hands as her mother's death was part of a larger dastardly plan from Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Shaw finds herself in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse in the middle of an epic battle for world dominance.

Hilmar — the face of the potential new franchise — lacks the charm and distinctive personality to carry a movie that is sorely lacking in both. Our ensemble fit into their archetypal roles but they are unable to make them unique in any way. Hester is our lead female protagonist, and she is quite interchangeable with the many heroines of this genre. Furthermore, the facial scar that makes her distinctive is poorly realized, as she still is a beautiful girl with a scar that doesn't look all that bad. Hilmar can certainly act, but she is weighed down by conventions and tropes. Her co-star, Robert Sheehan, is a wildly charismatic actor, but he too is unable to make his mark. Sheehan is almost enough to make the price admission worth it — almost. For as hard as they may try, the pair can't quite beat the the tired writing of the film.

That said, Mortal Engines' shining achievement would be the visual world that director Christian Rivers and the filmmakers have created. The movie has some amazing visual effects and production design, but it is not enough to elevate the uninspired story and plot. The world-building is admirable, but the writing falls short of really creating a world the can genuinely exist. Screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson take great effort to tie this world to our own, even making numerous references to modern pop culture, but they just come across as gimmicks. In many respects it is the writing that fails both the actors and world-building.

Otherwise, there are good ideas and clever moments scattered throughout the film, including some interesting insights into what mankind can become if we aren't careful enough. However, the lack of believable characters and writing makes all the great effort put into Mortal Engines worth nothing. Thanks to Sheehan's natural charm and Weaving's scenery-chewing — not to mention the overall awesomeness of a character named Anna Phang, played by singer-songwriter Jihae — the result only manages to be somewhat enjoyable.

Mortal Engines releases December 14th, 2018 from Universal Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 8 min.

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