Directed by Christian Rivers
Media Rights Capital (MRC), Scholastic Productions, Silvertongue Films
December 14, 2018
Seven or eight years ago, when steampunk suddenly became huge for a brief and shining moment, nearly every “what the heck is steampunk anyway?” type panel I was on talked about movies, and why there hadn’t really been a big blockbuster epic steampunk movie, and would there ever be a big blockbuster epic steampunk movie. We’ve had lots of steampunk and steampunk adjacent movies, from the classic Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (two thumbs up!) to the wonderful and underrated City of Ember, to the ones we just don’t talk about (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Wild Wild West, I’m looking at you). But the blazing mainstreaming of steampunk didn’t really produce the big-budget films a lot of us were hoping for. Nothing ever quite captured the aesthetic—the gears, the goggles, the clothes, the airships, and the philosophies underpinning it all—in a way hardcore steampunk fans wanted.
So when I say Mortal Engines is a few years behind its time rather than ahead of its time, that’s what I mean. This movie needed to come out in 2011; then, I bet it would have been huge. But I’m not sure the special effects of 2011 would have been up to handling what this put on the screen in late 2018. I rarely advocate going to a film just for the visuals, but this one I will. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it. Steampunk fans will tell you: The goggles and gears have to be functional, and they are here. Giant vehicles have treads and rivets and smokestacks that make an impact on the world. There are airships, airship battles, and a floating city. There are tailored coats festooned with medals, rogue aviators in bomber jackets and goggles galore, and commentary on class systems and colonialism. And there is mobile London, a terrifying tower of familiar landmarks made monstrous by some demented maker collective. The film has a hell of a pedigree: screenplay by Lord of the Rings vets Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, with visual effects by Weta Workshop. These folks know how to do big and epic.
Based on the novel by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world far in the future after literal Earth-shattering weapons destroyed most of the planet. Many of the survivors gathered in cities, and the cities themselves were made mobile in order to seek out dwindling resources. Thus, we’re told in an opening voice-over, giving rise to the “great predator cities of the west” and a strategy known as “municipal Darwinism.” Is that a hook or what? The opening scene shows our heroine, Hester Shaw, looking through a telescope for . . . something. Then it appears on the horizon, a great rumbling monster on multiple massive treads, each as wide as a highway. The little town where she’s at closes up shop, starts its engines, and flees in sections, to better avoid the predator. The predator is recognizably London, with giant Trafalgar Square lions in the front and St. Paul’s at the summit. London is nominally led by the Lord Mayor, but the real mastermind behind the city and its strategy is Valentine, a sinister, calculating man—played by Hugo Weaving, naturally—obsessed with the weapons of the ancients and determined to recreate them in order to conquer the one place on Earth with enough resources to sustain London: the land behind the wall of Shan Guo. An earnest ensemble of stock characters gathers to thwart Valentine’s plans and learn the dark secrets of Hester’s past—because of her archeologist mother, she holds the literal key to stopping the weapon.
Mortal Engine’s prime reason for existing are the visuals. Mobile London is extraordinary, and the world it’s rumbling through feels whole. The landscape is cut back and forth with vast trenches of the cities’ tread marks. Londoners stand on a railing, cheering, when the tiny Bavarian town on its broken-down wheels is hooked and dragged into the great city’s maw, to be broken up for parts and fuel. This hits all the post-apocalyptic story beats as well. Almost everyone badly needs a bath. There’s an obsession with artifacts of the before time. The themes of the story are about the lessons of the past and what people are supposed to do with them. Learn from them, as every other character would like to do, or use it for his own purposes, as Valentine does.
One could criticize Mortal Engines for telling a stock, predictable story with stock, predictable characters. Along with our scruffy orphan with a dark past Hester, our other main character is Tom, a plucky historian who really wants to be a pilot. We have the rich girl who learns the Truth about her hierarchical society, and the grease-smeared working-class boy she befriends (who we don’t see nearly enough of). We have the slick amazing airship captain and her heroic band of fighters. That the villain is played by Hugo Weaving is itself stock-casting shorthand. The plot isn’t complicated—get the McGuffin to stop the Bad Guy from doing the Thing. But a story like this may be why stock characters and plot exist. No shocking twists needed—after all, the failure mode of “shocking twist” is “nonsensical.”
I think the film’s heart is in the right place. Along with opinions about gears and goggles, a lot of steampunk fans will tell you that a genre that reaches back to the Victorian era for much of its aesthetic must also confront that era’s destructive colonialism. Mortal Engines is unabashedly about colonialism. The Anti-Traction League, which opposes London and Valentine and has its stronghold behind the wall, is filled with a diverse cast of characters, and its aesthetics are Asian-inspired. And London is coming to destroy them all and take their resources for itself. Anti-Traction leader Anna Fang shows up in a vivid red airship to spectacularly rescue Hester and Tom from wasteland cannibals. She brings them to a multicultural floating city where we meet her multicultural crew of rabble-rousers and fighters. We see what’s at stake here: hierarchical, rapacious London versus everyone else who is just trying to live. It’s like this film couldn’t have come out in 2011 because it’s incorporating so much of the discussions about what the steampunk genre is and should be that have taken place over the last eight years.
The movie is trying to do a lot. Maybe too much. Along with the A-plot of trying to stop Valentine from activating the death ray and destroying Shan Guo, there’s a B-plot that starts up when a mysterious killer robot comes after Hester. Valentine releases the robot from an ocean-going prison (another spectacular visual set piece in a movie stuffed to bursting with them) so it will destroy Hester for him. We learn that (A) the killer robot is a product of the ancients, a survivor from the old days, created from an actual resurrected human who may have memories of its old life, and (B) it cared for Hester after her mother’s death. This story line could almost rate its own film, especially when it wraps up in an unexpected way (unlike most of the film’s plot beats): the robot, Shrike, has been trying to kill Hester so it can resurrect her into a robot body like itself, in the name of protecting her from emotional harm; when it realizes that Hester has found love and companionship and no longer needs protecting, it ends its hunt and, on realizing its own love for her, self-destructs. (The clockwork heart, another ubiquitous steampunk trope—I think this film has them all.) The story could have gone the obvious route of using violence to stop Shrike, but in this instance, it didn’t go the obvious route.
The film feels long in the same way that so many big-budget action movies these days feel long. It’s like they spent so much money on those special effects and action sequences, by god, we’re going to see as much of them as they can cram in. It’s not that I was ever bored. But I did want some of those fight scenes to move to the next thing a little faster.
At the same time, the film still feels underdeveloped. If the story feels stock, it may be that it doesn’t have time to really breathe. We learn that Tom wanted to be an aviator rather than a museum curator, but we never really learn why that didn’t work out. Something about the death of his parents, I think. And yet, he turns out to be crack pilot. For a brief minute I thought our heroes were going to be the group of cheerful curators Tom works with, but we leave the museum rather too quickly and nothing much is made of those relationships. We meet Kate, Valentine’s daughter, when she arrives at the museum with some research questions. But that’s mostly a ploy to put her in Tom’s path and rope her into the story—we don’t get much more about Kate except that she has to renounce her father when he turns out to be evil. She’s a pretty good stock character who gets to do a lot and helps save the day. But the movie is filled with stock characters because it doesn’t really have room to do much more.
Really, this probably should have been an eight or ten episode mini-series.
That this is a stock plot with stock characters is a legitimate criticism, but during the movie those didn’t detract from the genuine pleasure and sense of wonder of being shown a world I’ve never seen before and want to explore more. This may not be the definitive steampunk movie we’ve been hoping for, but it’s definitely steampunk, and more than that, it incorporates a lot of what has come to be part of steampunk over the last decade, the philosophical underpinnings as well as the aesthetics.
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