MORTAL ENGINES is a wonderfully-bizarre wild ride… full of ambition, heart, and morals aplenty
And it’s going to bomb. And I don’t care.
As the Universal logo Earth spins across the screen at the beginning of Mortal Engines, the astonishingly-imagined new epic from writer-producer Peter Jackson — though it’s directed by his long-time collaborator Christian Rivers — we see explosions rock the Earth’s continents. Narration informs us that sixty minutes is all it took for humanity to destroy the world, and that “those who survived mobilized their settlements to begin life anew upon that poisoned earth.” This, we learn, is “the age of the great predator-cities of the West.”
Across a barren wasteland wobbles a tiny town on wheels.
It’s fleeing, trying to outrun London — now a gigantic tank of a city, flanked by two massive Trafalgar Square lions, with St. Paul’s Cathedral perched on top like a crow’s-nest on an old pirate ship. We see a girl on the “small Bavarian mining town,” the bottom half of her face hidden by a vibrant red scarf, watching intently as London gains on them, and we see a man at the helm of the city — played by Old Georgie his-self, Hugo Weaving— directing the city to “prepare to ingest!” Around the battlements of the city, crowds of people in bright neon steampunk outfits whoop and cheer as London overtakes the smaller town, opens up, and swallows it whole. It’s a thrilling sequence, one that gives only a glimpse of what we’re in for — namely, visually-stunning world-building.
Mortal Engines has a lot of exposition to get out of the way in the first twenty minutes or so; there are a ton of characters to introduce, a thousand years of mythology to both hint at and overtly explain, three or four central conflicts to set up, and numerous locations and vehicles (and location-vehicles) to explore. Basically: the girl with the scarf is hiding a scar, and a scarred past. Her name is Hester Shaw, and her mother was murdered by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) long ago, and now she’s here on London to exact her revenge. This coincides with the climaxing of a centuries-long conflict between the “traction-cities” in the West (i.e. London On Wheels) and the “static cities” or “anti-tractionists” in the East. It involves a wanted criminal named Anna Fang (Jihae), Thaddeus Valentine’s naive-but-realizing-it daughter Kate (Leila George), a mechanic named Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery), a minor villain named — incredibly — Herbert Melliphant (Andrew Lees), and our hero, a historian named Tom Natsworthy (a very good Robert Sheehan), who works at the British Museum.
Some of this exposition is delightfully clunky, but it’s clunky in exactly the right kind of fun way that tells you the important facts but lets your brain fill in the rest.
“You’re just a divvy from the lower tiers with no family and no prospects!” sneers someone to Tom, apropos of nothing; it’s a silly way to learn that he’s an orphan, yes, but also your mind immediately sketches in the details of the class system on London and how it’s physically stratified throughout the city. Similarly, while there are some strangely-introduced flashbacks that fill us in on Hester Shaw’s background, Tom tells her that his own parents died when their tier collapsed “in the Big Tilt.” We never get another word about it, but we don’t need to. It’s a descriptive-enough term that we can imagine a whole entire catastrophic event in the city’s history — we’ve seen enough of London chugging and puffing over the landscape that the mental image of what The Big Tilt could mean is enjoyable even if we aren’t shown it — and we learn about a formative event in Tom’s childhood, in just a few words.
The sheer joy of Mortal Engines comes from the absolute onslaught of these little details that suggest such a richly-imagined universe. So many big, expansive action movies these days feel designed by committee — you imagine a studio exec telling the screenwriter, “Mention that character so audiences know they have a movie coming out next year,” or “Slip in a reference to that place so that fans will wonder if there’s a movie coming out soon.”
Mortal Engines is very different.
It’s based on a novel, but never once did I feel like various name-drops and vague references to past events were Easter eggs for fans of the book, or things I felt like I probably should have gotten but didn’t. It all feels like imaginative storytelling instead, which is all too rare nowadays. I didn’t once fret about the fact that I should maybe recognize the name of a place from fourteen movies ago, or if a character entering a room unexpectedly was a shocking reappearance of someone from a crossover franchise that everyone around me understood but I was missing out on. Instead of being written by a committee, I felt like this was a fantasy epic written by an excited kid who kept saying, Yes! and then there’s a city in the sky made of hot air balloons! And a prison-city floating on the ocean! And… and… a Terminator! And cannibals! And lots of other things I don’t want to spoil, because the constant sense of wonder and discovery is what makes Mortal Engines so much damn fun!
And then there’s the fact that the movie is about the evils of colonialism.
It’s about British imperialism, and the way Western countries for centuries have subjugated, dominated, and literally chewed up and digested smaller, other countries, full of black people, East Asian people, South Asian people, Pacific Islanders, women, children. When we meet the resistance, they are people of every race and color and gender and shape and age. The imperialists on London are mostly white, aside from the people from other cultures whose livelihoods they have gobbled up, but those people are mostly from the lower tiers. Not the anti-tractionists.
It’s incredibly timely. Some of it is clearly intentionally meant to be an allegory for current events, such as when the Bavarian mining town is eaten by London in the first few minutes, and we hear a pleasantly bureaucratic voice announcing to the crowd that they should be advised: children may be temporarily separated from their parents at customs. Some of it is more abstract — while they were making this movie, a story where historians at the British Museum subsume other cultures and then weaponize the artifacts they find to in turn cause more devastation, the filmmakers couldn’t have known that upon its release the real-life British Museum would be under renewed calls to return stolen artifacts to nations that were colonized by England.
I’ll be interested to see if audiences are receptive to Mortal Engines, although I can pretty much guarantee they won’t be. After all, it’s opening alongside the incredibly-well-received Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Audiences ignored Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the most recent epic I can think of with such a sense of fun and wotnder, and of course people still make jokes about Jupiter Ascending, which I think is an absolute goddamn delight. Mortal Engines is maybe best situated in the lineage of the Wachowski sisters’ films, actually— beautifully-realized, fun, high-concept sci-fi fantasies about the nature of humanity and our capacity for bravery and goodness even as we march inexorably toward evil, the kind of movies that no one really makes very often.
I want a Mortal Engines cinematic universe. I want sequels and prequels and spinoffs that tell me everything I could possibly know about every character. I had to wait until IMDb finally updated the cast list today so I could find out the name of my favorite member of the resistance. Those goggles!! I want to read fanfiction and make fan art my phone background and listen to the score on my walk to work and dress as Toa Heke for Halloween next year and spend the whole night telling people, “He’s from this really fun movie called Mortal Engines, you should totally see it.”