“Mortal Engines” Review: A Wild Sci-Fi Fantasy that’s More than Expected

Let’s be honest, since the first trailers started to emerge, Mortal Engines has seemed to be a film that the studio had no idea how to sell to audiences. Based on the book series by Philip Reeve with a screenplay adapted by Lord of the Rings authors Peter Jackson Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh,  it has suffered from mixed messaging about what kind of film it was and what audience age grouping it was going for.  As it turns out, that’s unfortunate, because it is an impressive piece of worldbuilding, and it hits more often than it misses.

Mortal Engines
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Mortal Engines

Set 1,000-ish years after a worldwide nuclear war has ravaged and broken the Earth, the remaining cities have evolved into Traction cities – gigantic self-mobile cities, which are practicing a “municipal Darwinism,” by hunting down smaller cities and destroying them and taking their resources and labor forces. So it’s really a large part of the Mad Max: Fury Road concept, just rather than war rigs and cars, it’s London (yes, really, Londinium itself) which is rolling along, its citizens lining the edges of observation decks while it runs to ground a small Bavarian mining town, grinding it into consumable scrap, harvesting “old tech” from it, and absorbing its workforce.

No, the vast size and scope of the cities makes no logical sense. But then this should be remembered, it’s a fantasy. In the same way that audiences flocked to Stardust, or even Lord of the Rings. It’s purely a fantasy world, and plays very much by it’s own rules. The acting is fine, the huge action set pieces are good, and you’ve never really known you needed to see what two cities chasing each other around a broken landscape… until now. Because it’s actually really pretty fun.

Clocking in just over the two hours mark, the film suffers perhaps more than most in recent memory – it should have either been about 20-25 minutes shorter, or double-down and be a limited series. The world is one that feels like it’s been developed, and the mythos almost gets in the way of things with only a few hours to deliver the story. The last 30 minutes does wind up heading dangerously close to CW Network-levels of melodrama and interpersonal connections, and could have used another editing pass.

Science Fiction is too often relegated to being a 2nd class citizen amongst the genre world, and everything seems like it’s a rehash. Sure, even if Engines isn’t one to crow about being a “science-based film,” that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be. Genre fandoms are already entirely over the moon for anything to do with Harry Potter, and there’s nothing to be found in Engines which is more outlandish or harder to accept than is running around Hogwarts on a daily basis. Relax, it’s fine, and I would love to see it get a good box office run domestically or internationally.

Mortal Engines is directed by Christian Rivers and stars Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila George, Ronan Raftery, Patrick Malahide, and Stephan Lang. It runs for two hours and eight minutes and is rated PG-13.

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About Bill Watters

Games programmer by day, geek culture and fandom writer by night. You'll find me writing most often about tv and movies with a healthy side dose of the goings-on around the convention and fandom scene.

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