Mortal Engines movie review: A joyless post-apocalyptic adventure with bland performances, muddled politics

Anupam Kant Verma

December 07, 2018 18:35:55 IST

2/5

Mortal Engines, director Christian Rivers’ chomping, obese feature debut, begins with a chase. A humungous, steam-powered city on wheels rages after its relatively tiny counterpart across the 23rd century wasteland. From the big city’s railings, people cheer on its advance, affirming its leader, Thaddeus Valentine and his city’s massive appetite. Junkie XL’s music — him of Mad Max: Fury Road fame — shudders in the background as the tiny city tries to delay the inevitable. But it’s soon swallowed up, its skeleton of iron and steel now mere fuel for London City’s advance across the world in an endless hunt for food, fuel and domination.

A poster of Mortal Engines. Image from Twitter @UniversalPicsNZ

A poster of Mortal Engines. Image from Twitter @UniversalPicsNZ

The opening scene does a fine job of laying the groundwork for the politics and the scale of the film. But the moment Rivers momentarily abandons the spectacular for the intimate, the film begins to go downhill. Its politics starts getting murkier and more confusing, before plummeting into the comfortingly derivative by the end. Mortal Engines starts off as an imaginative allegory for colonialism’s bottomless hunger for resources and the implications of the literal march of ‘progress’. Soon, allusions to Hitler’s avowal of unending war and the race for the East start creeping in. It’s only a matter of time before the lines begin to be drawn all too clearly, Huntington’s clash of civilisations gets a shoo-in and Hollywood takes over for the finale.

The writing, the dialogue in particular, is sterile at best, plodding forward a story that labours visibly hard to make sense of the immensity of the world borrowed from Philip Reeve’s books that it adapts to screen. Make no mistake, the world of Mortal Engines is beautiful to behold. The CGI, for once, conjures a plentiful land of contrasts, from the floating settlements to the cities rolling ahead through the mud.

As we explore London City’s mechanical insides through the eyes of Tom Natsworthy — the orphaned, grown-up waif, its sunless, steely beauty unfolds itself. Humans may have tried hard to destroy each other with their advanced weapons all those years ago. The world they left the survivors to inhabit may be dangerous and seemingly out of the Industrial Revolution. But their ingenuity has resulted in a quaint, steam-run, mechanical animal of a city intent on forging a better future.

Tom learns about Valentine’s nefarious plans for world domination when Hester Shaw, a ghost from the tyrant’s past, tries to kill him. Tom partners with Hester and begins to learn more about Valentine’s bloody history. A fight to the finish with Valentine ensues, as they join a band of Anti-Tractionists (rebels from the static settlements) who wish to preserve an alternative, calmer way of life. Hester has a personal score to settle with Valentine, a singular idea that drives her existence. As Valentine marches towards a large static city in the East, the fates of Hester, Valentine, Tom and Anna, the leader of the Anti-Tractionists cross during a final battle.

Rivers previously worked with Peter Jackson as a storyboard artist. He is a veteran of the art. Therefore, the vision he conjures never lacks for grandeur and sometimes even jaw-dropping beauty. But he struggles to keep the different strands of the story untangled. Predictably, characters remain underdeveloped and the less said about the performances, the better. One never expects characters in these big-budget spectacles to possess shades of grey. But it works just fine as an escapist fantasy as long as the story is palatable.

This is where Rivers loses the plot entirely. Not only is there a raging political subtext to his film, but the characters are simply too many to keep count. This is quite unlike the Marvel universe, where the audience is prepared for multi-character extravaganzas through standalone character origin stories. In short, we know something about the Marvel characters before we walk into the theatre. The characters in Mortal Engines are simply too straw-like to ever elicit empathy from us. The bland performances worsen the situation. Rivers’ politics gets more and more muddled as he juggles different storylines. We become mute witnesses to a bunch of people sparring with each other in a hyper-stylised, grand vacuum of a world.

Mortal Engines could have been pardoned for all its excesses and missteps had it simply stuck to the job of offering a fun ride. Unfortunately, the poor writing sucks out all the joy, leaving a lifeless yet pretty skeleton of a film in front of us to dry. A tiny dose of humour could have gone a long way in momentarily enlivening it. All the melodrama, meanwhile, amounts to nothing. This is a film where you’ll feel more for a humanoid in his final moments than any of the human characters at any time. Rivers fails to create compelling drama throughout, but cannot resist meddling with it, almost always to injurious effect. His Mortal Engines is a perpetual motion machine that folds into itself and locks itself in the moment you try engaging with it emotionally. We watch it pass by as it huffs and puffs ahead, looking for the next span of gorgeous scenery to swallow up.

Updated Date: Dec 07, 2018 18:35 PM