Movie Review: Mortal Engines

Well, here it is. Possibly the most ridiculous movie of the year is Mortal Engines (although I have a post on the plausibility of it coming up). Mortal Engines is based on a young adult science fiction series by Philip Reeve about a post-apocalyptic future where cities are on wheels and eat each other for resources.

If it sounds crazy, it’s because it kind of is, but hey, it’s a young adult novel. It can get away with a fair amount of silliness. I could certainly name dumber premises, and even Mortal Engines itself recalls James Blish’s Cities in Flight, so it’s not entirely new. Plus, it’s steampunk, and you can always give steampunk a couple bonus points.

But that said, Mortal Engines is getting rather poor reviews: an abysmal 27% from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, although the audience gives it a more respectable 58%. As for me, I actually rather liked it—certainly better than the ratings it’s getting. I went in with low expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well it turned out.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5…maybe borderline 4.

I think Mortal Engines’s biggest flaw is that it’s trying to tell a three-hour story in a two-hour movie, which is weird because with Peter Jackson co-writing, the problem is usually the reverse. There was too much going on, and the story didn’t have room to breathe properly.

This was a little complicated to parse. I don’t mean it in the same way that I did for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, where I said the movie was trying to do too much at once. As a writer myself, I can recognize the problem J. K. Rowling had in The Crimes of Grindelwald: she had too many pieces she needed or wanted to line up to get the story told and set up the next movie. The problem for Mortal Engines is different: it’s just a bigger story—more epic, you might say, even though it’s only based on the first of the four Mortal Engines books. The distinction is subtle, and I can’t fully quantify it, but a longer story or even a more complicated story is not exactly the same as a story that’s too “crowded.”

One thing I noticed in this vein was that I felt like Mortal Engines didn’t have enough of what I would call “scene setting”. We only got a brief taste of what “normal” life is like for the traction cities in Europe. Although the book also opens with London chasing down the mining town of Salthook, and there is something to be said for starting with an action sequence (one of Peter Jackson’s signatures), I think the story would be better served by slowing down and showing more of the city life.

Note that this is also not the same as there not being enough exposition. That was a criticism I particularly had of Mad Max: Fury Road, which was why I didn’t understand why its ratings were so high. Mortal Engines had enough exposition for me to follow it easily. It just needed to let the story breathe a bit more.

I guess this is the distinction I’m looking for. It wasn’t that Mortal Engines was trying to do too much; it’s that the things it did do were too rushed. Even then, the definition of “too much” will vary from story to story, and I suspect that major factors include narrative structure, worldbuilding, exposition, and “scene setting”. It’s complicated, and I can’t really say more beyond, “I know it when I see it.”

So where does this leave the movie? It has some serious flaws, yes. Several subplots were quite poorly developed, and as I said, it felt rushed. Maybe I’m being too generous with my rating, and maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and say I should have rated it lower. (I’ve found that tends to happen in the past, which is why I’m equivocating over this one.) But that rating is a reflection of how much fun I had with the movie, and despite its problems, that’s probably the best recommendation I can give it.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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