Review: Mortal Engines Is A Long Way from Launching the Next Great Franchise

There’s no telling why the screenwriters of The Lord of the Rings trilogy—Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson—thought that the Mortal Engines four-book series (written by Philip Reeve) was a strong candidate for a film adaptation. The set-up is admittedly strong: a scorched-earth planet is all that is left after a catastrophic event known as the Sixty Minute War. The populations (and even certain buildings) from some of the world’s larger cities have somehow been made mobile and drive around continents, which all seem to have rammed together after multiple quantum explosions have decimated the planet’s tectonic plates, looking for smaller rolling cities seeking resources like food, fuel and people.

Mortal Engines
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

But once we dive into the players and the events that have shaped them, Mortal Engines is undeniably derivative of countless Hero’s Journey-based stories and hopelessly lacking in creative energy. We begin by seeing the massive, wheeled city of London swallowing up a smaller one after a noble chase. A masked young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is part of the smaller city’s population, and when she sees one of London’s most learned historians, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), she attempts to kill him in the name of her long-dead mother. She draws blood but fails to complete the task, but not before arousing the curiosity of a pair of young scholars—Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George) and a young historian-in-training Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), who chases after Hester and ends up out of the city and walking on foot across the barren wastelands, teaming with pirates and scoundrels waiting to capture him.

As one might expect from a film with so many moving parts—from the political to the personal—Mortal Engines features a great deal of exposition on everything from backstories to ways in which a small group of rebels can take down mighty London before it unleashes a secret weapon certain parties have been working on for years. Naturally Hester and Tom join forces, and she unloads her wild past about her mother being killed by Valentine and her being raised by a part-machine/part-corpse, cyborg named Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang). Shrike is now tracking her, presumably to kill her for leaving him when he was on the verge of transforming her into a creature like him. It may sound crazy, but Shrike is one of the coolest creations in Mortal Engines.

Eventually Hester and Tom meet up with a group of outlaws led by Anna Fang (South Korean singer Jihae), and together they hatch a plan to stop London from reaching a barrier wall that has kept it out of the West for decades. The technology of this world is based in steam punk styles, meaning new weapons look old and well worn. Director Christian Rivers (a special effect guru and sometime second unit director, making his directorial debut) certain convinced me that he knew exactly what he wanted this world to look like. Presented in a murky, muddy environment, the down-and-dirty special effects look impressive, even if characters and plot are sacrificed to this emphasis on making things look cool.

With the exception of Jihae and Hilmar (whose scarred face is her most distinguishing characteristic), most of the performances in Mortal Engines are generic, limp and nothing that makes me want to see any of these character in another story in this series, let alone three more. While there has clearly been a great deal of time and energy spent on production design and art direction, the end result with the sets and special effects is a slightly repulsive rust-colored screen. Maybe I’m just not in the right frame of mind to watch a film about a bombed-out world, but I don’t think that’s the only reason I didn’t respond to this movie. I feel fairly certain that if more dynamic, original characters were placed front and center, I would have loved this thing dearly. It has often been said that there are no original stories left, and maybe that’s true. I just wish films like Mortal Engines didn’t work so hard to remind us of that.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.