Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for Mortal Engines.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was kind of an anomaly  for the time. It was a film based on a book that was able to succeed in  not losing any of the magic and imagination of the original while still  being a good film on its own merits. The success of its film series,  however, had some truly terrible consequences. Harry Potter ushered  in an era of young adult (YA) fiction getting adapted into terrible  movies. Most movies aren’t as good as the books, even Harry Potter, but some movies took it to whole new levels of terrible. Eragon, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and many others met the tragic adaptation fate.

Although the production of these films have slowed down after the failures of The Maze Runner and Divergent to  turn their terrible source material into something semi-watchable,  there have still been no shortage of YA adaptations. However, I can say  something with confidence after sitting through all two hours and eight  minutes of Peter Jackson’s (yes, that Peter Jackson) Mortal Engines.

YA adaptations are like the dinosaurs. Mortal Engines is the meteor.

Cut-and-paste factory produced plot

Image from IMDb

Mortal Engines is based on a YA novel released in 2001 about  a post-apocalypse world where big cities are actually giant moving  tanks. It’s like Mad Max, except all of the vehicles are  actually settlements of people. It’s an interesting setting, one that  could lead to a lot of interesting political drama and solid action  set-pieces with a good script and great characters. The world around the  movie is unfortunately much more interesting than the movie itself,  which abandons the political drama for a more YA-friendly narrative.

The story follows Hester Shaw (played by Hera Miller), an orphan girl  with a scar on her face that she covers with that red bandana she wears  in all the advertisements but only for five minutes in the actual film.  Her goal is to kill Thaddeus Valentine (played by Hugo Weaving, who was  likely blackmailed by Peter Jackson to star in the film), an engineer  building a big space laser for the giant “predator city” that is London.  She almost succeeds in the first ten minutes of the film before getting  stopped by a young historian named Tom, a person with the personality  of actual driftwood. A chase sequence leaves Hester and Tom stranded in  the wasteland, with only Twinkies and their respective tragic  backstories to keep them company.

Image from IMDb

The plot is the most basic of basic plots, despite the interesting  setting. A girl is trying to stop an evil man (who is also her father,  which was apparently a plot twist but I just thought it was established  lore from the first few minutes of the film) from creating a weapon  strong enough to destroy all other cities that stand in their way. The  scrappy resistance uses a few planes to take on this giant tank in the  climactic final battle, which was so blatantly Star Wars that I  just accepted it as a knock-off. If you’ve seen one of these terrible  YA adaptations, you can guess where the movie is going and what tropes  it will use on the way to its underwhelming finale.

The most disappointing part about the major story beats being so  bland and predictable is that the book has a lot more twists and turns,  even just from the synopsis on Wikipedia. The villains are more complex,  the motivations more twisted, the protagonists are less perfect, and  the set-pieces are more interesting. The whole ending sequence of the  movie does not happen in the book at all from what I can tell, which  just reeks of production interference. And you may say that we have no  evidence of production interference, but given that Minion statues are  in the history museum as “American Deities,” it wouldn’t surprise me if  Universal had its greedy fingers in this plastic pie.

Cookie-cutter characters to fit in YA boxes

The characters are also as generic as the story. Hester is  cold-hearted, but finds love in the vanilla ice cream equivalent of a  man that she knows for all of 30 minutes real-time. The advertising  tries to paint Hester as this new Katniss Everdeen, who was a badass  warrior who falls in love due to circumstances and what seems like real  connections. Hester doesn’t do much of anything to show she’s a badass,  except scowl a lot. In the final confrontation with Valentine, this man  she’s been trying to kill for literal years, she has him at gunpoint and  doesn’t pull the trigger. Katniss would’ve pulled the trigger. Even  Thomas from The Maze Runner would’ve pulled the trigger, even  if he proceeded to whine about it for the next half-hour. Hester fails,  and has to be saved by her cheese pizza of a man. What a waste of a  strong protagonist.

Image from IMDb

The other non-Hester characters, aside from Tom, are all tropes given  life like sitcom characters. Valentine is the villain who believes he’s  doing good. The bounty hunter Anna Feng is cool and all but still very  generic. The Burger King Kids’ Club that is the resistance barely get  any dialogue at all, so when they die at the end it has next-to-no  impact. The only character who might have become interesting is  Valentine’s (official) daughter, but she doesn’t get screen-time aside  from the occasional cut-away where Some Guy shows her that her father is  evil. And then there’s the worst character of them all: Shrike.

Shrike is what they refer to as a “stalker,” a reborn human with no  emotions that serve to hunt down and kill targets with no remorse.  Shrike’s goal is to hunt down and kill Hester Shaw, a name he yells out  at least 20 times. But, you may ask, why is Shrike hunting down Hester  when she’s not his target? Well, that’s because Shrike raised Hester  when she was a child and developed an emotional connection. He wanted to  turn her into a robot so she could forget her tragic backstory and live  life forever as a killer robot. After attacking the resistance’s home  of Not-Columbia-from-Bioshock Infinite, Shrike stops himself  from killing Tom because Hester is in love with Tom and all of his plain  hamburger personality traits. Shrike then falls over and has  green-tinted flashbacks before dying, adding nothing to the story except  another character to share a tragic backstory.

Because everyone has a tragic backstory in this world, each character  will not shy away from spending a whole ten minutes waxing about their  life story. Every single major character does this, and I wish I was  joking when I say that. Some movies follow the “show, don’t tell”  philosophy. Others follow the “tell, don’t show” philosophy. This movie  straight up does show and tell for every single character, and it  greatly slows down the pacing to a near crawl. This movie may be two  hours long, but it felt much, much longer. If only the characters were  interesting enough to warrant a tragic backstory it might not be so bad.

A pretty shell for a hollow film

Image from IMDb

The film is at least held up with one strong aspect, something that  saves the film from being gutter-trash with the other YA adaptations  this year, and that’s a good visual style. When the characters shut up  and you can just watch these titular “mortal engines” operate and move  around, it looks genuinely fantastic. The opening scene in the film,  when London is chasing the small house-car Hester is on, is amazing to  watch and gave me high hopes for the film. The machines look like they  have weight to them, with the individual structures of the engines  falling apart realistically. If it turns out Peter Jackson was only on  the production for this one scene, it wouldn’t surprise me, because the  rest of the movie doesn’t even come close to looking as good.

Despite that, it’s still an aesthetically pleasing movie. Steampunk  has been done to death, and there are only so many ways you can put some  gears on it while still being a trendy fashion of the kids today. Yet  it’s still a very well-shot film with great sets, costumes, and art  direction. The editing was rough in a few spots, particularly during a  scene involving Hester talking about her tragic backstory, but overall  it wasn’t noticeably bad. Let’s say this movie is like a used car: it  looks nice on the outside, but once you start driving it, you realize  that there’s actually no engine. Or wheels. Or even a steering wheel.  And it has tacky fuzzy dice. Plus, there’s a strange clicking noise in  the back of the car you can’t pin down but it’s mildly concerning. But  hey, at least it looks nice on the outside.




Images: IMDb

Featured Image: IMDb

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