Interlude: Mortal Engines (a review)

I watched this movie over the Christmas break last year. Since it’s now appearing in “worst movies of 2018” lists, I figured I should step up and offer my defence of what was really a very enjoyable movie.

Okay, so first of all the usual disclaimers. I likey the CGI, the BST, the whizzbang. This movie had them all, and a cool premise to boot. I liked Aquaman (and I wasn’t alone). The world needs more post-apocalyptic stories, and more steampunk artistry, and this was a great example of both. Will it be as good on the small screen? Probably not. The scenery more than made up for all the actors desperately chewing it.

But even so, I will be happily adding this to my Peter Jackson / Weta shelf just as soon as I can afford to. It was a lot of fun.


I liked how the Crimson Permanent Assurance did battle with the – okay, I’ve made this joke and so have plenty of others, to the point where a Google image search for “Mortal Engines” finds this picture … so let’s move on.
Oh, and I also made the “this is how Britain re-enters the EU” joke, so don’t bother.

This was another movie of a book that I haven’t read the original material from, and having read through the synopses on Wikipedia I would have to conclude that this was a classically forgivable Jackson movie-ising of a great big beautiful world. Visually, it’s spot on. Story could maybe use a little work, but then we run into a couple of issues:

1) It’s a movie. It has to be between 90 and 119 minutes long (120 minutes and you will start to get ADHD cunts bleating about how IT WAS TWO HOURS LONG I LITERALLY COULDN’T OH LOOK SHINY THING), and contain enough action and a compact plot to stand alone – especially if it’s not guaranteed sequels. So restructuring is necessary. I, personally, would watch a five-hour completely faithful reproduction of a book’s story, if it was the right book. But I am not a load-bearing audience demographic. Of course, with TV series we have more leeway to be faithful to the source material at even greater length, but even then there needs to be some alteration.

2) A movie of a book can only ever really be as good as its source material. It’s very rare for a movie to be better (although it does happen, and not just when the source material is abysmal). And I’m not saying this movie suffered from bad material. I haven’t read the books so I’m going to default to “I’m sure they were fine”. From what I’ve read, they were initially intended as an adult series but the poor author (the poor, bestselling author with a Weta Workshop movie deal) was required to jump through publishers’ hoops[1] and rewrite them as children’s stories, and possibly wound up with a truncated young-adult narrative with less fine detail. I don’t know. It didn’t really come across in the movie adaptation. I got more of a Waterworld and Mad Max feel from it than a Hunger Games or Maze Runner feel.

[1] OKAY, I still have a chip on my shoulder, I’m trying to be better.

So anyway, we ended up with a bit of a movie-ising problem but it still held together pretty well. In fact, it seemed more like I was watching part two of a trilogy, with the obvious exception (or maybe even clever trope-breaking?) that it ends on a happy note[2]. Maybe the note could have been “London is gone, but now the wall is destroyed and all those other cool cities will be coming for us for the final showdown between the Traction and Anti-Traction teams“, except then it would have derailed from the book series entirely. I don’t know, it still seems like that could have been the way to go. It’s basically where they need to go if they’re ever going to make a sequel anyway – not that it seems likely they will.

[2] Let’s face it, if it had ended on a downer it would have been too much like Star Wars.


They managed to make this too much like Star Wars. Let that sink in.

If Mortal Engines had been the second movie, the first movie could then have provided a bit of a better setup and given us a good idea of how we got to where we are. Heck, maybe just more tooling around and watching cities eat things. More about the Lazarus Men / Stalkers. All of that. Perhaps they’re going to make a prequel movie (based on the Fever Crumb series?) and turn Mortal Engines into part two of a trilogy. Lots of things they could do. All depends on them ever getting backing for a sequel or a prequel, really.

And of course, I understand that they probably realised another patented Jackson trilogy blowout probably wouldn’t fly, and it seems as though a single movie didn’t exactly fly either. Which is a shame. But I’m not the right person to ask, am I? And yet, here you are.

Still. The Mortal Engines plot is apparently pretty much where the book series started too, so who am I to judge? After researching a little, I think the book version of Shrike and Hester make a little bit more sense but of course it all depends on how the cybernetic “Stalkers” are set up to work. The movie version was a little too broken-Terminator, you couldn’t really see it making deals with anyone. Then again, the book version seemed to turn into a handy way of bringing back dead characters as cool robo-zombies. In the book’s defence, that only seems to be done very minimally.


“I sure hope this transparent analogy for the book’s screenplay will support my weight. Oh no-“

I was struck, as I hinted above, at how very Star Wars the ending was. Here we have a giant mobile weapon-machine-city-world, with a new weapon capable of massive destruction, facing off against a rival faction and obliterating their defences, only to have the weapon shut down and a group of plucky rebels fly into the main power core and then fly out again ahead of the shockwave, while a main protagonist and antagonist fight on a high gantry and the latter reveals he is the former’s father. I mean, come the fuck on. And again, in the book’s defence, these events seemed to be done differently and the reveal didn’t happen like that, so it was probably way less on the nose. Putting them all together like that in a single movie just made it impossible to ignore.

I also like the idea (from the book) of one of the protagonists just bumping a keyboard and causing the whole MEDUSA thing to shut down due to a malfunction. Much more believable than a shutdown chip and program surviving intact for however many centuries.

I loved the concept (book and movie) of Municipal Darwinism. Mashing up familiar concepts and terms like that to create new ideas that are nevertheless easily understandable in context is very much my jam. I think it felt a little clunky in the movie and I can almost picture the author weeping as he cut down this and other great ideas for the younger-readers version of his story, and going “no, I’m not cutting Municipal Darwinism, it’s too good!” And kudos to him for standing his ground, even if it seemed strange in the movie script.


Also there was a couple of car-chase scenes with actual cities instead of cars, so that was worth the ticket price all on its own.

Good movie, sadly unappreciated and unnoticed amidst the whatever else there was at the end of last year. Aquaman, I guess. Of course, if anyone was going to overshadow the city of London in tank form, it would be Jason Momoa. So yeah. I give this movie a traditionally published Philip Reeve Mortal Engines Quartet out of a possible independently published Mortal Engines series Philip Reeve may have originally wanted to write.

About Hatboy

I’m not often driven to introspection or reflection, but the question does come up sometimes. The big question. So big, there’s just no containing it within the puny boundaries of a single set of punctuationary bookends. Who are these mysterious and unsung heroes of obscurity and shadow? What is their origin story? Do they have a prequel trilogy? What are their secret identities? What are their public identities, for that matter? What are their powers? Their abilities? Their haunted pasts and troubled futures? Their modus operandi? Where do they live anyway, and when? What do they do for a living? Do they really have these fantastical adventures, or is it a dazzlingly intellectual and overwrought metaphor? Or is it perhaps a smug and post-modern sort of metaphor? Is it a plain stupid metaphor, hedged around with thick wads of plausible deniability, a soap bubble of illusory plot dependent upon readers who don’t dare question it for fear of looking foolish? A flight of fancy, having dozed off in front of the television during an episode of something suitably spaceship-oriented? Do they have a quest, a handler, a mission statement, a department-level development objective in five stages? I am Hatboy.
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2 Responses to Interlude: Mortal Engines (a review)

  1. It looked as fun as hell to me. I’ll have to give it a try when it comes onto DVD.

  2. Pingback: Gonzo Blockbusters | Hatboy's Hatstand

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