‘Mortal Engines’ runs out of steam

by Kate Walz on December 13, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Rock Fist Way Down]

When will Hollywood learn that steampunk movies generally suck? Name one that you love. That came out after 1985. That isn’t animated. I’ll wait.

Kinda like Sky CaptainMe, too.

There’s nothing wrong with the aesthetic – but too often they turn into Wild Wild West. And, unfortunately for the readers of Young Adult Fiction, the latest contribution to steampunk on film is just as awful on every level.

The premise of Mortal Engines, written and produced by too many people, one of which was Peter Jackson, and directed by Christian Rivers (previously of The Hobbit‘s art department), is that cities are now on wheels and the larger ones cannibalize the smaller ones for resources. I’m assuming that worked in print, creating droves of fans the studio wanted to take another $10 from.

Of course, it takes about five seconds of critical thinking to figure out that isn’t sustainable, but the people in charge of Roller London think it’s a swell idea, for no discernible reason – there’s not even an obvious grab for power explanation. They just really want to do it.

After London grabs and “digests” (movie’s own jargon and ew) a smaller mining town, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, bringing all the K. Stew and none of the J. Law) uses the opportunity to stab Roller London’s Roller-in-Chief Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, looking like evil Richard Branson, and working way too hard to be this ridiculous), which seems to actually do very little, as he chases her and a Roller London citizen, and kicks them both off his big skateboard.

The citizen is Tom (Robert Sheehan, with no charisma or charm) and he must break down Hester’s emotional barriers – she was, after all, raised by a Terminator-Frankenstein (Stephen Lang) who is hunting her down to ensure she is happy – so that they can get back on Roller London because of no reason that makes sense.

The sets are bad. From our first introduction to the rock-’em-sock-’em roller cities they look like sets and CGI and nothing else. The script is bad. Every line could come out of a bag of stock movie phrases – there’s not an original thought or plot point. The chemistry is bad. Hester and Tom are definitely not into each other, and can’t seem to muster the energy to convince themselves, never mind us.

Hester is herself problematic. In the book (I did research), she’s missing an eye and part of her nose. In the movie, she has a slightly deeper scar than most movie heroines required to have a facial scar. She also has very long, ridiculous hair, and it’s only through movie magic that she isn’t scalped jumping around in a steampunk world full of actual gears. She’s also boring. She’s driven by the memory of her mother, but no notable connection to her mother is made. She’s driven by revenge, but doesn’t take it when she can. But, so angsty.

The plot is so derivative (stealing from the aforementioned Terminator, but also The Matrix, World of Warcraft, and a galaxy far, far away) it could be the world’s most dangerous drinking game. When Jihae shows up, playing wanted badass Anna Fang, it looks like there might be hope – or a reason to stay awake. But, alas, she is merely the love child of Han Solo and Morpheus – looking for The One while flying a plane.

Anna’s looking for Hester – she’s sure she’s The One who can stop all this roller-madness. And it turns out, she’s right! Not because of Hester’s inner strength, mythic gifts, or star-aligned destiny. Nobody asks her to test this theory or prove anything. Eventually, someone just gives Hester this thing back that used to be hers that nobody had any way of knowing about or expecting her to have. Worst. Macguffin. Ever.

Anna takes Hester and Tom to the Rebel Base, I mean a big hot-air balloon in the sky, where there are signs saying not to shoot guns, because sparks, but, predictably, the characters shoot guns anyway, and, predictably, the hot-air balloon goes up in flames, inciting yet another escape (like the fifth one at this point).

The Star Wars rip offs just keep coming. There’s an aircraft that looks like an X-Wing and a giant weapon that must be one-shotted from the inside. And the big, not-so-emotional showdown at the end between Hester and Valentine is void of any originality or intensity. I don’t think Weaving even cared.

Roller London moves toward a big city with lots of resources (it was able to collect because it doesn’t move, turns out), intent on breaking down the impenetrable wall with the indestructible weapon. This land of promise is based on Asian culture – and you know that because it’s the only time you hear a gong. The Oriental Riff would have been marginally less subtle.

By the time it’s all over, who cares? The characters were watered down and unremarkable, the sets are boring, the plot is inane and recycled and then it just keeps going. It’s not even fun bad in a campy and over the top way. You’re better off watching Star Wars with a Sky Captain chaser.

Kate Walz

Kate is a content-consuming pop-culture nerd. Her top 5 movies are: The Philadelphia Story, The Master, The Fountain, What About Bob and The Departed.

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