On the Saturday night before Christmas, my girlfriend Maura and I went to see the new Peter Jackson-produced box office bomb Mortal Engines.
We bought a bottle of cabernet at the theater bar, because it seemed like a Full Bottle movie.
We were not wrong.
Due to the circumstances (she was driving), I drank 3/4 of our bottle of wine during the 2 hour and 4 minute movie, after eating a dinner of [ checks notes ] nothing.
So, here’s how that went.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for Mortal Engines, a movie that you have basically already seen if you have seen literally any other movie before.
An Increasingly Drunk Review of Mortal Engines
1. We enter the movie about 5 minutes late, but the other seven people in this 400-seat theater don’t seem to mind.
Besides, it doesn’t really matter. We already know how the movie’s opening sequence, in which a motorized London hunts down and captures a small Bavarian village in a futuristic hellscape where cities devour each other for survival, ends. It has been celebrated in pretty much every review of Mortal Engines.
Unfortunately, aside from my friend Eric’s rapturous reaction, this is also the part of most Mortal Engines reviews where the writer says, “If only the rest of the movie were this good.”
2. < sigh >
If only the rest of the movie were this good.
3. Much has been said about the film’s allegories to imperialism, with London literally absorbing other cultures and liquifying the parts it doesn’t find useful as its well-fed citizens cheer loudly for every new primal acquisition.
These allegories are all correct. This is not a subtle movie.
4. Maura and I agree to toast and drink every time an obvious trope, generic line of dialogue, or by-the-numbers character beat happens. (Spoiler alert: she will need to stop drinking about halfway through the movie or else she won’t be able to drive home.)
5. When the weapons that could destroy humanity are revealed in the first ten minutes of the movie, you can bet your Chekhov’s ghost they’ll be used by the end. ESPECIALLY when their location is detected by a dude who was spying on the leads from behind a window slat, and who I don’t think we ever see again because WHO THE FUCK WAS THAT GUY?
6. Hang on… is every character in this movie white? London is a city of millions, yet every character with a speaking role except one so far has been Caucasian? This either seems Incredibly Tone Deaf to Modern Society… or Extremely On Purpose.
7. Maura: “Why does that actor who plays Valentine look so familiar?”
Me: “The Matrix. He was Agent Smith.”
Maura: “Ohhhh, right. Elrond.”
8. Mortal Engines does an impressive amount of world-building in the first twenty minutes. (In retrospect, this occurs at the expense of meaningful character-building, which is what this film actually needed. But still: credit where credit is due.)
9. [ Hester tries to kill Valentine. ]
Maura (who has seen at least one movie before): “Ohhhh, he’s her dad, isn’t he?”
10. This movie is a grab bag of tropes in search of a plot.
11. The sequence where Tom chases Hester through the lethally deconstructed Bavarian town would be impressive if a) we weren’t absolutely sure both characters were going to survive it, b) it looked like either of them were even slightly flummoxed by having to dodge ARENA-SIZED BUZZSAWS CUTTING THROUGH A GODDAMN CITY, or c) the chase itself directly impacted the plot or their characters, rather than serving as a cool-looking but ultimately pointless and empty time-killing CGI setpiece, which is what [ wait for it ] the entirety of Mortal Engines itself unfortunately is.
12. When a character says “Fine, I’ll just stop talking” and then, moments later, in the exact same scene, after less than ten seconds of silence, he begins talking again, and it’s supposed to be played for comic relief, you know exactly what kind of goddamn motherfucking sonofabitching movie you’re in for.
13. Shoutout to the costume designers for films that take place 200 years in the future, who must feel perpetually torn between “look at how different fashion was between 1800 and 2000; we need to be at least that realistic in this movie” and “ehhh, let’s just give everyone technicolor waistcoats even though this movie takes place in a post-apocalypse where colored dye would probably be even more rare than edible vegetation yet our actors’ teeth and complexions will be flawless, so [ shrug ] fuck it: epaulets for everyone.”
14. Valentine: “She won’t stop until she kills me.”
Twix (HANG ON, is that really her fucking name? [ checks IMDb ] Christ in a hat, it is…): “Unless you kill her first.”
[ Maura and I are almost drunk and we’re not even 15 minutes into this trainwreck yet. ]
15. Did they have to destroy the entire prison and murder everyone who was on it just to set one dude free? Wasn’t there, like, literally ANY other way to do that?
16. Me: “That Lazarus guy is either going to kill Elrond, or he’s going to help the girl kill Elrond.”
17. Do they just have a checklist of story beats and setpieces they need to hit, like Star Wars bingo?
“Here’s the zany comic relief character.”
“Here’s the next action playset.”
“Here’s the hero whose backstory we’re praying you’ll want to see in a prequel spinoff.”
18. Ohhhhhh, so they only introduced the character of Valentine’s Purist Daughter so they’d have a subplot to cut away to whenever the main story of Hester and Tom needs to kill time? Got it. 👌🏻
19. Maura: “I think Hester’s mom is played by the same girl who plays Claire’s daughter on Outlander.”
(It turns out she’s actually not, but there is a resemblance.)
((Outlander is a good show, by the way — mostly because it knows how to build character. I talked about that last year.))
20. Mortal Engines is so thirsty for sci-fi trilogy street cred, they literally cast a young Han Solo lookalike (Robert Sheehan) to play Tom.
21. When a character in a movie like this is introduced in slow motion, as Anna “The Wind Flower” Fang is, you know this character is a) supposed to be unquestionably cool, and b) probably going to die heroically so the actual leads can accomplish their narrative arc. Because there’s almost no chance that the leads in a movie like this will die, so the audience’s concern has to be transferred to the likable-but-expendable secondary characters.
22. Me: “Okay, time for a five minute exposition scene that will be punctuated when the Lazarus dude attacks them again. I’m going to the bathroom. Let me know what I miss. It won’t be anything.”
23. [ in the bathroom, to myself ] ( “Did that dude just exit a stall and not wash his hands? What the fuck is wrong with some people? Do they think handsoap is a conspiracy?” )
24. [ after washing my hands ] Me: “What did I miss?”
Maura: “The Lazarus dude raised Hester when she was a little girl, and the Asian girl knew her mom. That’s why she saved her.”
Me: “She literally just happened to show up at the slave trader auction at the exact moment the girl was about to be auctioned, and that counts as saving her? What about the last 10 years of her life?”
Maura: [ drinks silently as the Lazarus dude attacks them again. ]
25. Ohhhhh, so Hester is the daughter who grows up to avenge her genius parent who was killed during the building of a weapon of mass destruction by an evil empire? That explains why I’m getting so many “Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso in Rogue One” vibes from Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw.
26. The only noble people in this movie are people of color, and China are the good guys? Ohhhhhhh, so it’s THAT kind of movie. Gotcha. 👍🏻
27. Wait, why did Shrike (AKA Lazarus dude) self-destruct when he realized Hester was capable of an emotion other than sadness? Why wasn’t he happy for her? Why didn’t he… like… continue existing? Or find literally any other thing to do with his life? What a fucking waste of a subplot.
Good thing he gave her back the secret weapon that will be used to defeat Valentine in the film’s third act like I predicted 30 minutes ago.
[ The camera lingers on the MacGuffin as we drink. ]
28. Oh hey, look, those humanity-destroying weapons that were introduced in the first ten minutes of the movie have been stolen.
29. [ By this point, I’m now drinking Maura’s half of the wine. ]
30. Oh good, everyone who had at least one line of dialogue in the airship scene is still alive for the Final Showdown scene. Good thing Lazarus only killed redshirts.
31. WITNESS THE POWER OF THIS FULLY OPERATIONAL BATTLE STATION!
32. Maura and I toast to the emperor of London (“Magnus Crome,” AKA underrated actor Patrick Malahide), who is very clearly about to die in one of those “surprise! the REAL villian is even worse than the apparent villain” scenes that would actually be a shocker if we didn’t already know this for the past hour.
33. Oh, so London has four gun turrets, and the resistance has four planes left to attack with? I guess we know what the next seven minutes of this movie are all about…
34. Me: “Okay, which of the generic pilots do you think will die during the attack on London?”
Maura: “Definitely the Latino Guy Whose Name We Don’t Know.”
Me: “That seems reasonable.”
35. “… wow.”
That was me, during the moment when the Medusa weapon is finally unleashed.
There are definitely a few impressive moments in this clusterfuck of tropes. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough character scaffolding built around them for anyone to actually care for more than a few minutes at a time.
36. NOOOOOO, not Blonde Topher Grace with the Fake Moustache!!!!
37. Noooooo, not The Black Girl Who Had One Line!!!
38. Did they show Captian Dreadlock surviving his plane crash, only to never show him again for the rest of the movie???
39. Did the separatist faction really need to gun down everyone in the control room in order to get them to ram the wall? What kind of genius backup plan is that, anyway? How is a barely-functional London-on-Wheels going to survive beyond the wall?
For a shrewd strategist who has literally waited years for this moment, is doesn’t seem like Valentine has much of a plan beyond “and then we breach the wall!” Like, my dude, there’s a whole continent on the other side. Maybe have a Plan C.
40. Speaking of, I love how Valentine is supposed to be some kind of archaeologist, but he’s also a melee blackbelt with Navy SEAL-esque combat skills and the ability to casually jog off a KNIFE STAB TO THE ABDOMEN.
41. Despite getting billed ahead of Blonde Valentine Daughter, the guy who plays Pointless Yet Mildly Useful Backup Hobbit in this movie (Ronan Raftery, whose character’s name is evidently Bevis Pod [ ??? ] even though I don’t think it’s ever said aloud, nor should it be) disappears in the film’s third act.
Like, literally: he leads Valentine’s daughter to the third act showdown, and then he just… wanders off? In the middle of the conflict? Which he’s evidently been keenly preparing for off-camera for years?
Seems legit. 😬
42. HOLY SHIT Blonde Valentine Daughter hasn’t heard Tom’s voice in days, and she only knew him for about an hour before he disappeared, and yet she suddenly recognizes his voice from just a few words OVER A RADIO TRANSMITTER??? My own parents can’t make out what I’m saying on a state-of-the-art cell phone half the time.
43. [ At this point, we’re down to our last two sips of wine, which we’re holding until the end credits. ]
44. Like I said, this movie’s big flaw is its lack of character depth. No character has more than two facets. Blonde Valentine Daughter is the virtuous one. Backup Hobbit is the rebellious one. Elrond is the righteous one. Hester is the chosen one. Asian chick is the one who’s going to sacrifice herself so the heroine can save the day.
Honestly, the most interesting character here is Shrike the Lazarus man. You could have made an entire movie just about him and it would have been more interesting than Mortal Engines.
45. That said, Mortal Engines isn’t bad.
It’s not a must-see, but it’s also not a don’t-see.
Unfortunately, I don’t know if there’s any box office breathing room these days for moderately-satisfying CGI spectacles that aren’t based on a wildly popular pre-existing intellectual property.
And I fear that the box office failure of a flawed movie like this is going to give studios even more excuses to avoid adapting lesser-known or entirely orginal screenplays in the future, in favor of recycling even more well-known characters and stories that we’ve already seen before.
46. The even sadder truth?
If this movie was called Marvel’s Mortal Engines, it would have already made $180M domestic and we’d be chest-deep in Mortal Engines easter egg and fan theory prediction videos on YouTube.
47. They really don’t spend much time explaining why the death of Tom’s parents prevented him from becoming a pilot, do they? Did he have to work at the British Museum to support his younger siblings? Was there a deeper Tom history that the movie cut for time? As it is, his whole “I wanted to be a pilot, but I couldn’t because TRAGIC REASONS” subplot just feels like a boilerplate backstory that was bolted onto his character to give the audience something to Pavlovianly cheer for when he actually gets to fly a plane later in the movie.
48. Notice how the stalling husk of motorized London stops juuuuuuuust short of crushing the cockpit of the plane that Valentine was in, * just in case * there’s a sequel.
( There won’t be. This film isn’t even going to make its production budget back. )
49. WAIT HOLD THE FUCK RIGHT ON did a movie whose ENTIRE CONCEPT is “big cities eat little cities” feature EXACTLY ONE GODDAMN SCENE OF A BIG CITY EATING A LITTLE CITY, which also happened to be the first ten minutes of the movie??? If you take that out of the film, this is LITERALLY EVERY OTHER POST-APOCALYPTIC DYSTOPIAN “DUELING IDEOLOGIES” STORY and the whole “cities on wheels” conceit is 1000% meaningless!!!
50. If you’re playing along at home and you still have any wine left by the time Tom and Hester fly off into the sunset together without expressing any kind of believable emotional reaction to the events of the past 20 minutes, chug.
51. This movie should have ended with Valentine’s daughter and the Emperor of China meeting on the wall, which was a much more profound and emotionally satisfying moment that actually addressed the deeper themes of the film (survival, community, assimilation, mercy) than a hero shot of our two leads zooming off in search of a sequel.
But hey, you’ve gotta give the people what they want.
Which, I guess, are two lovable rogues in a biplane?
52. In the end, Mortal Engines fails from a lack of investment in character. It’s so focused on plot (and nobody ever cares about a plot unless you already care about the characters involved in it) and world-building (which is only ever interesting as a story’s side dish, not as the emotional core of a would-be franchise) that it neglects to build characters we actually want to see again.
The biggest frustration here is that it wouldn’t have taken that much more screentime to make the characters nuanced and compelling, and it would have been much cheaper to shoot than yet another CGI flyby of a mechanized London.
To do this, the filmmakers needed to ask themselves one question:
When, at any point in this movie, does a character have to choose between risking something they need and achieving what they want?
If Valentine had convincingly struggled between pursuing his reckless plan to win the war and retaining the love and respect of his daughter…
Or if Hester had any motivation deeper than “I must kill the man who ruined my life…”
Or if Tom possessed anything that was ever at risk during any choice he made, it would make all his derring-do feel truly brave instead of simply being a convenient way to advance the plot…
Or if the movie had spent more time with Valentine’s daughter Katherine, who is just about the only character who undergoes an actual change of motivation in the film…
… then maybe Mortal Engines could have risen above the weight of its topheavy special effects and paint-by-numbers plot.
52. As I exit the theater, I catch the eye of one of the four people sitting in the front section.
Me: “What did you think?”
Him: [ shrugs, squints, at a loss for words ]
Me: “I thought it was so close.”
Him: “Yeah. That’s it.”
Me: “Another 20 minutes of character development and this could have been a really good movie.”
Him: “I’ll be honest, I missed the beginning. But I didn’t really care because like you said, these weren’t really characters. It’s just a bunch of stuff happening.”
Me: “So close, man… Merry Christmas.”
Him: “You too.”
Merry Christmas, movie house.
Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan.
Merry Christmas to my big brother George. The richest man in town.
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