“Mortal Engines” (2018) is a super-fun adventure that follows Hester (Hera Hilmar), a girl on a quest for revenge upon Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), head of the London Guild of Historians, against a backdrop of social stratification and xenophobia in the Great Hunting Ground.
In this world, based on Phillip Reeve’s 2001 book, cities are mobilized after the Sixty Minute War as giant amalgamations of metal, and predator cities capture and deconstruct smaller towns for resources, a concept theorized as Municipal Darwinism.
I don’t understand how such massive machines could viably travel for more than a few minutes, considering how much fuel they must require and the fact that “old tech” like computers are obsolete. But once you accept this stretch of logic, the film rumbles along with its action.
There are four notable plotlines other than Hester’s vengeance: Valentine’s evil dreams of power; Valentine’s daughter Katherine’s (Leila George) investigations of her father (unfortunately forgettable); a creature who’s hell-bent on his own vengeance against Hester; and the Anti-Traction League, a militia force idealistically opposed to mobile cities and the social stratification on them.
The League is represented strongly by Anna Fang (Jihae, “Mars”), a rebel/terrorist who seems like she came straight out of “The Matrix.” Jihae gives one of the strongest performances in the film, despite having more singing experience than acting credits. Anna Fang is forceful, independent and simply real, with a noticeable maturity and gravitas.
My favorite part of “Mortal Engines” is its setting. I’m a sucker for dystopian films, but this one combines dystopia with industrial steampunk, unlike the cyberpunk I am more accustomed to. Reeve’s world-building captivates: There’s a centipede-like town that burrows into the dirt of the Great Hunting Ground; Airhaven, which reminds me of the Spaceport in “Treasure Planet”; and of course the predator city of London.
“Mortal Engines” has its fair share of tropes: a dead mom, a mysterious treasured heirloom and a surly heroine who refuses to show feelings. However, the film does nail a few elements — the genuinely scary Necron-esque character Shrike (Stephen Lang), and flirting with romance but favoring friendship.
The movie overall is fairly predictable, as most teen-oriented post-apocalyptic and dystopian films are. There’s a “twist” at the end I should’ve seen coming at me like London churning over the Great Hunting Ground, but that’s what happens when I let myself be engrossed by massive steampunk monstrosities, an undead terminator and airship dogfights.
My movie-critic brother didn’t think much of it, but if you love action and dystopian fiction — especially if you’re an anglophile like me and the thought of your favorite city anthropomorphized and on wheels makes your eyes go wide — give “Mortal Engines” a shot.