Home » Years » 2018 » Mortal Engines ••••

Mortal Engines ••••

Starring: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving
Director: Christian Rivers
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: December 14, 2018


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, start your engines. It’s time to review this next movie.

I’m looking forward to the never ending struggle of city-on-city cannibalism. Let’s recap:

We’re introduced to a dystopian future in which entire cities are mobilized on wheels and prey on other smaller cities. We witness the city of London chasing down and absorbing the smaller city of Salzhaken. Powering London’s wheels is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Aboard Salzhaken is a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who is intent on killing Valentine because he killed her mother a decade earlier. Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) intervenes and saves Valentine’s life.

But as Tom chases Hester, they are both thrown off the city of London and left to fend for themselves in the wastelands between cities. Hester and Tom make for uneasy companions as she hates the mobile cities and Tom only wants to get back to London. Meanwhile, back aboard London, Valentine is hoarding ancient technology to build a weapon and start a war to end all wars. Will Tom and Hester be able to stop him?

Greg, Mortal Engines gives us a unique and inventive, not to mention action-packed, sci-fi film. How cool is it that we see a dystopian future in which cities are basically Transformers on wheels. These massive and densely-packed cities possess the ability to transform any time into either mobile monster trucks or killing machines — and sometimes both. The CGI effects and cinematography are stunning and almost worth the price of admission by themselves. Yet we know that these visual superficialities cannot carry a movie. There must be a good story and interesting characters. I’m happy to report that Mortal Engines delivers on both these fronts.

Our heroes are a pair of young adults named Hester and Tom. It’s hard to say whether they are buddy heroes or romantic heroes – probably a little of both. Whereas Tom is thrown into the journey against his will, Hester is on a mission to avenge her mother’s death. So this movie reminds us that some hero’s journeys are voluntary while others are not. The villain of the story, Valentine, deserves special mention because he is the classic evil-doer who does not think he’s an evil-doer. Herein lies the conundrum of evil — Most real world villains, from Hitler to Osama Bin Laden, are misguided in their belief that they are on a heroic mission to make the world better.

I think we need to acknowledge the shockingly bad title given to this film. The lame title had to contribute to the movie’s lackluster box office performance. Is Mortal Engines really the best they could do? Off the top of my head, without any thought, I can think of several better titles: Killing London, Death Wheels, or Kill Switch come to mind. Movies are like any other product; if they are not packaged well, they are doomed to failure — which is a shame because this movie deserves sequels and is likely not to spawn any.

I heartily agree, Scott. Mortal Engines is based on the books by the same name. But the challenge of selling such a unique (and frankly outrageous) concept as mobile cannibalistic cities proved too much for Hollywood. IMHO, selling the human story would have yielded better results.

This is a reminder to all writers that in the end, stories are about people and relationships. While the backdrop may be outer space adventure (like Star Wars) or the banks of the Bayou (like Mud), the reason people go to the movies is to be drawn into the challenges of being a person in a situation that needs remedy. As such, focusing on Tom’s desire to return to his city and sort out what’s gone wrong – or Hester’s desire to avenge her parents’ death at the hands of Valentine – would have resulted in a better turnout at the box office.

All that aside, Mortal Engines is a treat in both its visuals and the human story. However, it is not without some negatives. The ending scene where Tom and friends fly around taking out turrets on London’s surface defenses – and Tom’s ultimate destruction of the city from the inside – felt all to familiar and a rip-off of Star Wars. Also, the movie deviates significantly from the book’s ending. Which makes sequels based on future volumes of the book series nearly impossible.

Mortal Engines is a highly creative and visually captivating sci-fi dystopian story that grabbed my attention at the outset and maintained it for two full hours. We’re treated to the hero’s journeys of two buddy heroes who each have a different mission yet also share the mission of surviving in this deadly world. The visuals of this film coupled with its compelling story make Mortal Engines well worth watching. I give it 4 Reels out of 5.

Our heroes are two likable young adults who appear to be mortal enemies at first yet have far more in common than they realize. When they stop fighting each other and forge an alliance, they are stronger than the sum of their parts. Hester and Tom become mentally and emotionally transformed as a result of their journeys, and their growth allows them to successfully complete their missions. I award them 4 Hero points out of 5.

With regard to archetypes, there are several worth noting. There is the archetype of the predator and the prey, the apocalyptic war, the power-hungry villain, the hero with a secret past, and the McGuffin object. I give these archetypes a rating of 3 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Mortal Engines is a cinematic marvel with entire cities eating other cities. While this had the potential to devolve into a Transformers-like garbage-fighting-trashcans story, the focus on the characters gave rise to a masterfully told story that I would like to see more of. However, the ending left me feeling there was a lack of originality that fell back on old tropes. I give Mortal Engines just 4 out of 5 Reels.

Our buddy heroes Tom and Hester are a classic odd couple. While they start out at opposite ends of the spectrum, they eventually come together to fight a common foe. I give them 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the archetypes are standard fare with the VILLAIN, MENTOR, and ORPHAN on full display. I give them 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: