‘Mortal Engines’ Film Review: Dazzling Sci-Fi Fantasy Takes Big Risks and Succeeds

Based on Philip Reeve’s novel about futuristic moving cities doing battle, this thrilling visionary tale is the best kind of bonkers

Last Updated: December 12, 2018 @ 11:24 AM

You’ve never seen a chase scene like the one at the start of “Mortal Engines”: A young woman scans the horizon and sees London, the whole city, rolling towards her on giant tank treads. She races back to another, smaller city and sounds an alarm. All the businesses and residences suddenly retract into a shell, and the smaller city rolls away at top speed.

Two giant cities are now chasing each other across the countryside, power-sliding towards the lips of a canyon, until one of them eats the other.

The only rational response to “Mortal Engines” is “Wow.”

This is one of the most breathtaking action sequences in recent memory, at once wholly unbelievable and yet brought to life with thrilling detail. It’s a high standard to set for the rest of “Mortal Engines,” based on the novel by Philip Reeve, but the film manages to keep that sense of wonder alive for over two hours. You’ll recognize some of the storytelling beats, but you’ve never seen a live-action world quite like this.

“Mortal Engines” takes place 1,000 years in the future, after the crust of the Earth was shattered in a giant war. Twenty-first-century technology is eagerly dug up by archaeologists seeking answers and/or advanced weaponry. “Predator Cities” roam the plains like pirates, gobbling up smaller, mobile municipalities, absorbing their populations, raiding their ancient gadgets and turning their husks into fuel.

Hera Hilmar (“Da Vinci’s Demons”) stars as Hester Shaw, a scarred teenager with a vendetta against Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the seemingly heroic figurehead of London’s government. After that afore-mentioned mind-boggling chase, Hester tries to assassinate Valentine but is stopped by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, “Bad Samaritan”), a mild-mannered young historian who chases her through yet another eye-popping wonderment — a foot chase through a city that’s being ripped apart by giant chainsaws the size of buildings.

Unfortunately, Hester was right about Valentine, and he drops both the young heroes to their apparent doom at the base of the city. But they survive and find themselves wandering through enormous, canyon-like tread-prints that London leaves in its wake. Tom wants to go home, Hester wants her revenge and Valentine will stop at nothing to keep his earth-shattering secrets.

The story of “Mortal Engines” isn’t nearly as original as its surroundings. Tom and Hester snipe at each other until they come to a mutual respect, and then eventually something more. Their journey leads them through recognizable sci-fi/fantasy tropes, like getting kidnapped and sold to the highest bidder, and dealing with seemingly evil outlaws who turn out to be humanity’s last hope. Underneath all this steampunk wonderment, you’ll find the blueprints for “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” cut into pieces and reassembled in slightly different ways.

But it’s impossible to complain that parts of “Mortal Engines” seem familiar when so much of the movie is new and astounding. Christian Rivers, who won an Oscar for the visual effects of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” makes his directorial debut, and he’s been given free rein. (Jackson shares screenplay credit here with his frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.) At no point does “Mortal Engines” seem hindered by budgetary concerns or a lack of inspiration. The world is intensely designed, with impressive details in nearly every scene, no matter how briefly we visit each locale. The lighting is sharp; the editing is confident. Every dollar of this movie seems to have found its way on screen.

And inside the film, at its heart, is a fascinating villain named Shrike (Stephen Lang), a cyborg zombie who wants to kill Hester for breaking a mysterious promise. He looks like Voldemort got stuck in a blender with the killer robot from Richard Stanley’s “Hardware,” and he’s an unstoppable death machine. The way this CGI-enhanced creature moves, with unnerving stillness and disturbing speed, gives him a unique physicality. And his story eventually unveils more morbidity and sadness than most blockbusters even attempt.

It’s as though the comfort of “Mortal Engine’s” classical storytelling conventions are a spoonful of sugar, so the film’s weirdest elements can be accepted more easily. In a popular culture that’s hesitant to embrace bizarre big-budget motion pictures unless they’re part of a pre-existing blockbuster franchise (and even then, it’s a gamble), a movie like “Mortal Engines” can often struggle to find an appreciative audience. It’s the kind of bonkers that’s often scoffed at during an initial release, only to earn a legion of fans later, who can’t understand why nobody took a chance on the film when it first came out.

It took time for “Starship Troopers,” “Dark City” and “Speed Racer” to earn credit for doing exactly what “Mortal Engines” is doing right now. It’s an overpowering world of steampunk delights, almost Miyazakian in its presentation. It’s hard to complain about a path being well-worn when all the sights will make your eyes pop.