Mortal Engines film review: is there more to the Peter Jackson-produced epic than spectacle?

Philip Reeve’s YA favourite Mortal Engines is brought to the big screen but fans of the book may be left wanting more

There’s an awful lot to digest in Mortal Engines. Adapted from Philip Reeve’s young adult novel of the same name, the dystopian adventure drama is set in a time where metropolises exist as gargantuan vehicles that roar across vast wastelands in search of smaller, more resourceful cities to swallow and steal from. While the domineering districts – known as ‘tractions’ – are hoovering up their compact counterparts, we’re tasked with taking in intricate plot details, a plethora of characters and complex jargon; all of which are thrown at us in a baffling barrage of information.

While it’s full of metaphors about overpopulation, colonisation and the dangers of technology, Mortal Engines centres on Hester Shaw (Heli Hilmar), a young woman who has been plotting revenge against the corrupt Londoner Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) who killed her mother since she was a child. But her murderous plans are thwarted by historian Tom (Robert Sheehan), who doesn’t know the truth about his idol’s ruthless nature. Thrust off the city by Valentine, the pair comes up against all kinds of obstacles, including a Terminator-style figure that has a debt to settle, before they meet rebellion leader Anna Fang (Jihae) and gear up for a Star Wars-esque battle between good and evil.

Hester makes for an intriguing protagonist; distant, full of deep-seated pain and yet far from being a victim. Hilmar plays her with a mix of underlying rage, warmth and stoicism, making her a hero you’re desperate to see succeed. Weaving is the most valuable player however, chewing up every scene as he exudes pantomime-like levels of villainy. His exaggerated performance – all gravelly voice and knowing smirk – works well in this larger-than-life, fictional world.

It’s evident why he felt the need to ham it up too, seeing how character comes secondary to action. With CGI-heavy traction chases, sky-based attack sequences and fiery fight scenes – set to an ostentatious score by Junkie XL – it’s reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road. Only that film knew how to say a lot by saying very little. Most of Mortal Engines’ dialogue consists of cringe-worthy one-liners, meaning the relationships that form along the way feel forced and unearned and any emotional weight is zapped.

Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by his long-time visual collaborator Christian Rivers, it’s no surprise that Mortal Engines boasts epic world-building; it’s certainly a feast for the eyes as it brings Reeve’s steampunk spectacle to life, from the crowded, scrap-filled ‘Gut’ of London and the muddied crevasses left by traction’s caterpillar tracks to the decorated halls of the city’s museum (complete with Minion “deities”). It’s just a shame its messy pacing and clunky, predictable story are so hard to stomach.