I recently had the pleasure of visiting a friend of some means who had bought himself a new Tesla. I’ve never been in a Tesla, never really even seen one up close, and he eagerly gave me a tour of it. And my god, the thing is a damn marvel of science and technology and engineering. Those people have thought of everything, every detail, every perk. Its interior is essentially controlled by what looks like a large tablet screen and other than a gear shifter and a turn signal, that’s the entirety of its dashboard and gauges. It gives you everything, conveniently, at the push of a button. It’s intuitive and intelligent and wholly fascinating to look at. I will readily admit that it met my skepticism of the brand head-on and blew past me. And when we took it for a drive — not far, just through his neighborhood to get some pizza for our kids — it was like being inside a smooth, silent, mechanical shark.
I say this not because I’m looking for a Tesla endorsement or trying to get you to spend absurd amounts of money on a car, but because the encounter kept popping into my mind as I watched Mortal Engines last night. Based on the novel of the same name by Phillip Reeves (the novel is the first of four), it takes place in a wild future where civilization as we know it was wiped out by our own hubris and arrogant use of a superweapon. What’s left is a steampunk-y society of cities and towns that are always moving, rolling creakily on massive tracks and wheels throughout a barren landscape. The smaller towns live in constant fear of being hunted for parts and resources by “Predator Cities,” the largest and most dangerous of which is London. London’s chief engineer is Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a seemingly kind but actually viciously ambitious man determined to resurrect the weapons of the past to further London’s dominance. He’s challenged by Hester (Hera Hilmar), a scarred orphan with a vendetta, and Tom (Robert Sheehan), a young museum curator-in-training who unwittingly stumbles into the whole affair and joins forces with Hester. Along the way, they encounter other rebellious allies, including Anna Fang (South Korean singer/songwriter Jihae) as they fight towards stopping Valentine.
And much like that Tesla, Mortal Engines is absolutely beautiful to look at. The film is stunning in its worldbuilding, in its visual pizzazz, in its intricate and almost delicate attention to detail. From costume design to set design to engineering, it’s a gorgeous, wondrous, and rather original new world for the big screen. The Steampunk genre has never really effectively made its way into films and this feels like the closest we’ve ever come. The cities themselves, giant rumbling monstrosities that defy all logic, feel vibrant and alive. The same can be said of the weird, alien airships that Anna Fang and her comrades fly — no, sail — through the skies.
But this isn’t a Tesla. This is someone who took the hollowed-out shell of a Tesla and stuck an ‘85 Chevy Celebrity inside. Because despite its gorgeous visuals, Mortal Engines has little new to show you in terms of story. It takes a little while to realize how much of it is simply cobbled together, pirated bits from other, better films and novels, right down to its “boy who always wanted to be a pilot having a hero moment where he flies into the heart of the machine to make that one perfect shot to save the day” climax. There are so many storytelling elements that are lazy shortcuts. And of course, shortcuts are necessary evil when adapting to film (although truth be told, the film changes too many things around for its purposes, taking away some of the book’s charm), but these are less shortcuts and more narrative leaps, from a telescoped romance that never clicks to a series of utterly jaw-dropping coincidences, Mortal Engines takes all the capital it accrued with its visuals and wastes it on its drab story. Everything is predictable and the characters never really engage you. Robert Sheehan’s Tom stumbles around stupidly through the first half, never really earning the hero mantle he’s essentially gifted by circumstance. Hilmar’s Hester is pretty good, though frankly the character would have worked better on her own, rather than being bogged down with Tom and his dull baggage. What you’ll really be pining for is the story of Anna Fang, clever, funny, fierce fighter, pirate, and pilot who speaks like an utter badass and obviously skipped school the day they taught the lessons on fear. She’s a relentlessly bad bitch and she needs her own something, stat.
There’s a lot of wasted potential in Mortal Engines, and that will come (frustratingly) as no surprise when you see that Peter Jackson had his hands all over this production as producer and co-screenwriter. Much like in some of his Lord of the Rings work — most notably the wretched Hobbit trilogy — he can’t leave well enough alone and is determined to leave his own stamp on everything, ultimately doing more harm than good. Mortal Engines could have been a fine film and a serviceable jumping point for a new franchise, featuring a unique and lovely new type of dystopia. But there’s no chance that this world goes any further. This thing is doomed from the start. It’s going to stumble through a crowded Christmas season, losing the race to better films, ultimately to be relegated to the junkyard of missed opportunities.
Header Image Source: Universal