Mortal Engines doesn’t deserve its bad rap. Here’s why you should give the film a chance — even if the stars didn’t align to make it a classic.
Before we start, don’t be insulted, Star Wars fandom! I love the Star Wars movies and their amazing worldbuilding, wealth of characters, and fascinating mix of action and politics.
But, if you’ve seen Mortal Engines, you probably realize that it had all those elements, too. It was set in a fully immersive universe, with a variety of really interesting characters, and a ton of action and politics. That’s a recipe for success, right?
Well, no. Mortal Engines is being considered a flop by almost everyone, which is upsetting, because it stands out more for what it does right than what it does wrong. After all, its mistakes have already been made by almost every sci-fi/fantasy movie (yes, including Star Wars.) And what Mortal Engines does right, it does amazingly.
Yes, the leading male character is kind of annoying. But isn’t that the case with 80% of sci-fi or fantasy stories? Unfortunately, in their commitment to following the hero’s journey archetype, writers have decided that their starting point should be “whiny, immature guy,” and we have all had to suffer as a result (keep an eye out for an article on this topic, because it’s infuriating). This isn’t just a Mortal Engines problem. It’s happened in almost every hero’s journey ever. We’re so used to it, that if you just shut down your brain a little, it’s easy to tune him out and focus on the real main character: Hester Shaw.
Hester Shaw is awesome. She has a brutal backstory, a powerful thirst for revenge, and an excellent mixture of vulnerability and rage. The fact that Hera Hilmarsdottir can hold her own against Hugo Weaving in both dialogue and battle deserves an award on its own.
Could the writers have done better, especially when it came to her romantic side-plot? Definitely. Was everyone’s dialogue just a little stale? For sure. But I feel like Hester’s excellent characterization and epic scenes more than make up for that. We see her jump willingly into a chasm, slash Hugo Weaving’s character with a knife, perform some incredible jumps and take on a colossal, steampunk predator city. What’s not to love?
And speaking of predator cities: if you have the chance, you absolutely must see this film in IMAX, or at least the big screen. The CGI in this movie looks like if Peter Jackson made Mad Max — colorful, huge, epic… and strangely beautiful. Just seeing London open its ghastly mouth is an incredible experience on the big screen, and the glorious soundtrack will give you chills.
But it’s more than just the special effects that’s unique. Mortal Engines is based on a novel from Philip Reeve’s book series, and it does not shy away from taking on concepts like colonization, war and privilege head-on. The very concept the story is based on — of predator cities assimilating poor populations into their culture, and regarding savage practices like war the only way to benefit — is incredibly poignant and not something you see every day.
It’s also very unusual to see a movie made in the West that makes a Western city the villain, and an Eastern city a peaceful haven, juxtaposing the consumerism that spreads in the West against a more peace-oriented way of thinking. It’s an interesting examination of our own history, and how dangerous it could be to repeat the mistakes of the past.
So, no, Mortal Engines isn’t the best movie you’ll see this year, but it has some genuinely epic scenes and a very original story, and it deserves acknowledgement for that. After all, Star Wars: A New Hope had many of the same problems this movie had, even though it did better in other aspects. Mortal Engines will never become a classic (and I don’t think it should, because we have different standards today) but its hero’s journey isn’t that much worse than Star Wars, and its dialogue is still better than Aquaman’s.
Aren’t we always complaining that there isn’t enough original content out there and studios are playing it too safe? Well, Mortal Engines is here, trying to break the mold, and maybe we should give it a chance.
And if this still hasn’t convinced you to go watch the movie, there’s an absolutely hilarious pop-culture reference about five minutes in that will make you laugh for days, and, if nothing else, make you admire whoever was in charge of making the sets for the movie.