Opening with an immediately bizarre city-vs-city chase scene, Mortal Engines quickly establishes itself as a visual spectacle. As cities pack up and race off when a predator city draws near, it feels fresh, evoking Mad Max by way of Terry Gilliam. This quirky style holds the film afloat as other aspects flounder, making sure the film remains entertaining, even if merely on a surface level.
Mortal Engines is based on the first of a young adult series by author Philip Reeve, which follows a sort of steampunk version of London in the future, where the primary result of an ‘apocalypse’ seems to be that a lot of cities are on wheels. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a mysterious young woman, boards London, determined to put a stop to the machinations of a man from her past.
While early moments are an enjoyable introduction to this setting, it quickly eschews these smaller, oddball moments for bombastic blockbuster fare, leaving most of the fun in the design. Cliches abound, plotholes confuse and some elements are downright laughable, but there’s enough of that Gilliam/Mad Max/Stardust concoction to keep you watching to the end. The plot on the other hand, seems largely left in the book, with many characters and subplots seemingly hanging around for the sake of it.
While much of the plot feels heavily borrowed from bigger, better things, the cast do a decent job with what they’ve got, even where much of their characterisation feels relatively two dimensional. While Hera Hilmar doesn’t have much to do playing the dour protagonist, Robert Sheehan of Misfits fame does his best to squeeze in some comic relief, leaving Jihae’s Anna Fang as the unequivocal action heroine of the piece. Plus, let’s be honest, is anyone tired of watching a menacing Hugo Weaving do what he does best?
While Mortal Engines is far from perfect, the constant comparisons arose because it felt interesting enough to try and categorise it. It had sprinklings of Hunger Games and a touch even of Lord of the Rings. Some scenes felt like some sort of live action Attack on Titan directed by Miyazaki. For an enjoyable spectacle with all the typical young adult trappings, you could do far worse than Mortal Engines, it’s just a bit of a shame it wasn’t quite something more.