Mortal Engines is the newest post-apocalyptic film offering, and like so many others, it fails to hold together. The movie looks engaging with its steampunk-ish giant rolling cities and fantastic airships, and the artistry is something to behold. However, the plot sinks with holes and confusing logic leaps. The one entertaining aspect of this movie is counting the number ideas it stole from other films, including the Matrix and Star Wars.
Based on an idea of “municipal Darwinism”, a great phrase that could be applied today as larger cities incorporate the smaller ones around them. In Mortal Engines, the great city machines chase down and engulf smaller ones for food and fuel, the London machine has grown to be the greatest city roaming the land. The model used for it is impressive with a locomotive front, and rising levels of towers that ends in a cathedral top and necessitates the need for an internal subway system to get to the engine levels.
The enemies are the people who live beyond the “great wall,” which looks like a giant dam guarded by an array of flying craft. The anti-tractionists chose to settle in one place, build homes, farm and, by the Mayor of London’s thinking, hoard all their supplies. These Luddite-style people are a peace-loving mixed culture that includes Asians and Indians, making this a type of racist war as well. The plot centers around the idea that as long as the wall is standing, the great machines and scavenger societies can destroy their side of the world while leaving the rest alone.
But of course, tell a power-crazed man he can’t go to some place and he will steal, murder, and sacrifice all to go there.
That is exactly what Hugo Weaving’s character, Thaddeus Valentine, does. Weaving plays the villain in the wonderfully menacing way he perfected. He murders a woman to get an ancient WMD to blow down the damn Wall. In killing people, he sets up a practically Shakespearean plot twist where the daughter (Hester Shaw) of the slain woman grows up seeking revenge. The movie starts at Shaw’s attempt at revenge, and much of the story is told in backflashes.
The story problems begin with the initial world. London, which boasts a large population, is in constant need of food, supplies, and energy. Except the audience sees multiple views of lovingly tended flower gardens. A ridiculous idea for a community on the edge of starvation. Food, if it could be called that, is shown multiple times, but only in the sense of sludge and algae. Edible animals must have disappeared completely. Yet this world isn’t the barren wasteland of Mad Max fame. The great engines roll through some wasteland, but the film shows great forests as well so the Earth is obviously capable of sustaining farms.
In addition, when London “eats” a town, the people are subsumed into the population, but the material goods are not stripped out, the food is not confiscated, valuables like cloth and furniture are not recovered. The town is put through a gigantic grinder to reduce it to burnable fuel. In short, the premise of this world doesn’t hold up.
Finally, the most glaring plot hole is the fact that as London approaches the great Wall, the anti-tractionists on the other side know Valentine has the WMD. This miracle knowledge appears out of thin air since the weapon is a secret to most Londoners, including Valentine’s own daughter. How would the Wall dwellers have known about it? In addition, as the only other witness to the finding of the WMD (and the murder of Shaw’s mother), Hester doesn’t even know or understand the importance of the weapon until near the end of the movie. Nor does she know about Valentine’s plan for it. She has the only key to stop it and, at the climax of the movie, seems to know exactly where to place the key in order to shut the whole thing down.
In short, the movie offers beautiful CGI and steampunk atmosphere but dies on plot, making this movie not worth seeing. It’s a shame really because such graphic art deserves a wonderful story to cement its fame. Peter Jackson has certainly done better. Yet Mortal Engine’s future lays in being shown in some Mystery Science Theater 3000 venue where shouts of disbelief and popcorn throwing are allowed.