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Film Review: The Steampunk Potential Runs Out of Gas in “Mortal Engines”

Written by: Patrick Howard | December 14th, 2018

Film poster: “Mortal Engines”

Mortal Engines (Christian Rivers, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars.

Visual effects artist turned film director Christian Rivers teams up with longtime collaborator Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) to bring to life the first entry of Philip Reeve’s popular steampunk inspired book series, Mortal Engines. In the distant future, the countries of the world will launch weapons of mass destruction upon each other and leave the seven continents disheveled and fractured in no more than sixty minutes. A thousand years later, the surviving cities have strapped massive engines and wheels to themselves and roam the desolate countryside looking for any remaining resources and evading predator cities like London. Among the thousands of people who live in these slums-on-wheels, one woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), is determined to fulfill her revenge on the man, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who killed her mother and permanently disfigured her face.

Can you count on your hand the steampunk-inspired films that have had a mainstream release? Neither could I. It’s a real shame, too, because the Victorian-era aesthetic and steam-powered technology of this science-fiction subgenre lend themselves to an intricate and extremely tactile world. Mortal Engines has this tactile intricacy in spades, and Christian Rivers loves to take the camera and spin it around and hover it over the towering structures of London. Robert Sheehan plays a young London scholar who likes to look for old technology from before the sixty-minute war. Whether it’s a barely operational toaster or decrepit iconography from our current pop culture, this man is all over it.

Hugo Weaving in MORTAL ENGINES ©Universal Pictures

While the first act of Mortal Engines allows its characters a considerable amount of time to explore the corridors, boiler rooms, and every possible nook and cranny of these massive cities, this fun dive into a relatively unfamiliar world ceases once Hester Shaw takes the lead. As typical of the cinematic young-adult (YA) genre, protagonists like Hester are economically set up with clear and concise motivations that tie into the plot within the first 15 minutes. By the 20-minute mark, Hester’s personality rarely diverts from a contrived revenge plot comprised of a tragic backstory that means little to nothing and is easy to predict where it will end.

Mortal Engines offers world-building that is a suitable visual feast for the eyes. Every building and clothes worn on the backs of our characters look lived in and offer a few golden nuggets of insight into these people’s day-to-day lives. The film cannot steer away from the all-too-common tropes of the YA model, including dull characters with superficial likeability. Regardless of Mortal Engines’ box office intake, let the film serve as a reminder to the powers that be in Hollywood that they are sitting on a mound of storytelling gold called the steampunk genre.

Hera Hilmar in MORTAL ENGINES ©Universal Pictures

Patrick Howard has been a cinephile since age seven. Alongside 10 years of experience in film analysis and criticism, he is a staunch supporter of all art forms and believes their influence and legacy over human culture is vital. Mr. Howard takes the time to write his own narrative stories when he can.

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