Mortal Engines: A lavish, spectacular but lopsided movie

Review: Even Robert Sheehan and Jihae can’t make up for this film’s lack of personality

Official trailer for Peter Jackson produced film, Mortal Engines.

Mortal Engines: As impressive as it looks, Christian Rivers’s film is pathologically wedded to its steampunk aesthetic

Film Title: Mortal Engines

Director: Christian Rivers

Starring: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang

Genre: Fantasy

Running Time: 128 min

Wed, Dec 12, 2018, 09:57


It’s some years into a dystopian future and marauding city machines – like Laputa, in Castle in the Sky, or Howl’s Moving Castle – rove around on wheels in search of smaller, weaker city machines to absorb and enslave. The cruellest imperialists of the lot live in the city of London, an endlessly greedy empire determined to gobble all of continental Europe knowing all the while that their own system is unsustainable. Insert your own punchline here.

Within the city limits, a dashing apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy (the impossibly charismatic Robert Sheehan), collects old tech and heroically intervenes when a mysterious young woman named Hester Shaw attempts to assassinate the ambitious head of the Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). It’s a Hugo Weaving character. What could possibly go wrong?

Thus, Tom and resourceful rebel Hester find themselves dumped out of London and into the badlands. And then they’re kidnapped by Ozploitation-friendly slave traders. And a Terminator named Shrike chases them. And they’re rescued by Anna Fang (a swaggering turn from the South Korean pop star Jihae), the leader of the Anti-Traction League, a resistance group. And then there’s a bomb. And so on.

Christian Rivers, Peter Jackson’s long-time storyboard artist, makes his directorial debut with this adaptation of Philip Reeve’s award-winning novel, a lavish, spectacular, messy picture containing some thrilling set pieces and far too much tedious world-building.

Mortal Engines never quite settles on a protagonist – Tom, Hester and Anna are all in the running – making for a lopsided narrative that still somehow diligently hits every predictable genre beat.

“We’re not going to tell each other our sad stories,” harrumphs Hester about 20 minutes before she trots out the first of two tragic backstories. Two! Even the collective screen charms of Sheehan and Jihae can’t compensate for the project’s lack of personality. 

As impressive as it looks, Mortal Engines is pathologically wedded to its steampunk aesthetic. Often it feels like being battered half to death with a copy of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. Even the goggles seem to have goggles.

In the moments before the crucial save-the-world climax, Tom turns back so that he can face his steampunk Waterloo wearing a more steampunky jacket. No one blinks an eye.

In cinemas now