Mortal Engines (2018) — You will believe that a city can get horrible gas mileage

“We have to stop London before it destroys us.”

Justin’s rating: That’s one old Twinkie

Justin’s review: Mortal Engines kicks off with a Mad Max-like chase across a post-apocalyptic wasteland as a superior predator seeks to devour weaker prey. However, instead of pimped-out muscle cars, here we have mobile cities belching smoke and running down each other to feed upon them.

Yup, cities on wheels. Transforming cities, mind you. This is what the end of the world has wrought.

There’s no way that this concept didn’t come about because of a bad pizza binge and subsequent unhinged dreams. I’ve never read the novels this was based on, but everyone here seems all-in on a ridiculous premise that I have to admit is kind of cool. Steampunk cities roving the earth and snarfing up the remaining resources? Written and produced by Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh? Even though I knew it got kicked around at the box office, I heard testimonies that said this film deserves a second look. Or a first, from me.

This is set some time after the “Sixty Minutes War” wherein humanity unleashed weapons more powerful than nuclear weapons and cracked the planet beyond recognition. While in one movie the apocalypse was partially thwarted by an inventor creating an endlessly running train, here, it’s an inventor who decided that urban sprawl simply needed wheels and combustion engine to thrive.

In the “traction city” of London, one of the biggest of the world, not all is well. The city is running out of resources and Hugo Weaving’s got a really bad beard. Also, he’s an evil mayor who wants to use his city to destroy the non-Transformer cities out there. Standing between him and planet-ripping conquest is an assistant historian named Tom and a scarred girl in a mask named Hester.

Kicked out of London, Tom and Hester create an uneasy alliance to navigate the wasteland and, somehow, get back to the city. This means harpoons, airships, slavers, and other massive vehicles that are turning what’s left of the world into a muddy demolition derby.

Not only is the setting uniquely weird but the aesthetics of Mortal Engines makes for some delicious eye candy. The cities have a cool retro-futuristic steampunk, with repurposed technology from our age coupled with gearworks and belching smokestacks. If you can shut off your mind, there’s a visual spectacle here that’s up there with a really good video game cutscene.

The problem is that this two-plus hour film needs a little more than eye candy to sustain it. And here is where Mortal Engines falters, because the plot and incidences are simply not that deep. I’ve seen the same post-apocalyptic journey and tropes too many times, albeit with much lower budgets. The two leads are adequate for the material but don’t leave an impression that lasts past the end credits.

I’ll give it this one thing: There is an undead cyborg, a development that comes out of nowhere but is greeted with open arms by me.

Plot, visuals, characters — if you give me two, we have a good time. Three, we are in business. But just one? It can’t be done. I’m sorry, but it can’t. Maybe I can throw Mortal Engines a bone here and admit that the action and soundtrack are pretty groovy. But it’s another one of those modern visual spectacles hoping that it can distract you with sweeping camera movements and CGI bluster so that you won’t notice that this is as shallow as a lot of post-apoc films from yesteryear.

Didja notice?

  • Those cities transform too fast to be safe for pedestrians
  • Dreamworks’ Minions are “American deities.” Sigh.
  • “The Screen Age”
  • Mind the Drop and Keep Calm and Keep Moving notices
  • Those are some big honking chainsaws
  • For a guy who got stabbed, the mayor is pretty mobile
  • Movies REALLY like talking about drinking your own urine
  • Twinkies last forever: “Best before 2118”
  • Algae tea
  • Hey, undead cyborgs, this isn’t a bad development
  • About time someone started opening up with a shotgun around here
  • Boot knife to the forehead
  • Give a cyborg a rope, and he’ll take down an airship

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