Full disclosure, I skipped this in theatres because I thought it looked ridiculous. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed me to look into a lot of films I dismissed or didn’t give enough credit to, my need for something new outweighing my apprehension in many instances. Patrick Willems, YouTube star and podcast mogul, dropped a video highlighting what he called “gonzo cinema.” The idea was to highlight films that didn’t always work despite the craft and glory behind them. These films are ambitious, weird, and almost always sci-fi films. One that he highlighted was Mortal Engines, a 2018 Christian Rivers film based on a quartet of young adult novels that detail adventures surrounding giant cities on runners like a tank.
I’m not kidding.
Mortal Engines chronicles the stories of Hestor Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), two young adults living in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. See, way back when humans were obsessed with cell phones and tablets the militaries of the world devised a new quantum weapon. We apparently almost wiped ourselves out in what is known as “The 60 Second War” and are reduced to small settlements with a myriad of strange technology. The guy that’s basically running London, the biggest remaining wheeled city, is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) and he is hell-bent on finding new grounds where his hometown can feed. With the mobility to think about, the cities roam around and consume smaller cities. This process involves capturing and employing the citizens they capture and demolishing the remains they leave behind for fuel. Hestor is after Thaddeus, and when she and Tom wind up stuck in the wasteland we follow along as they attempt to stop the evil bastard from unleashing a blasphemous scheme to continue consuming.
I loved this weird thing. Two measly years ago I scoffed at it and didn’t bother to watch the movie, but two years later I’m overjoyed at the creative talent on display with the visuals and storytelling. Everything about it is bananas in ways I found refreshing. Watching the remains of London hunt down a small town and literally eat it was a sheer joy. Sure, it’s a disturbingly blunt parody of capitalism and how we merely consume until greed drives us to destroy everything we hold dear, but that’s beside the point. I came for entertainment and I was damned entertained.
Our characters are thin. I only state this because I feel it needs addressed, but the wonderful thing about YA fiction and the adaptations of it is that we don’t always need wildly perfect characters. It’s almost always a young male/female pairing, usually with one that has a rough past and the other from privilege. It’s almost always surrounding the two entering an uneasy alliance as they try to survive together despite coming from opposing sides. It’s almost always the case that one of them is related to our main villain through either blood or bond. These are stereotypes, but they can be executed competently and I think the film accomplishes them on that level. They aren’t embarrassing to watch, rather quite sweet despite being mildly forgettable. The true standouts of the film are Hugo Weaving, who absolutely lives in a ham sandwich and is utterly delicious in his despicable demeanor, and Stephen Lang.
Oh, I forgot to mention Stephen Lang before this?
Stephen Lang is a legend of character-actor cinematic presence, and he’s given a feast this time around. He plays Shrike, a Resurrected Man and the last of The Lazarus Brigade. What’s that? You say those words make no sense to you? Too bad, because he’s awesome. What it means at the heart is that he’s a bizarre zombie/cyborg man that is stalking Hestor and the result is an absolutely wild confrontation that may be the most emotional moment in the film. That’s right, I was nearly brought to tears by a young ginger woman having an honest conversation with a zombie robot while the world burns around them.
And that’s the real crux of my love of Mortal Engines. The movie is far from perfect, slightly messy and fraught, but the stuff that works is wonderful. It gives me imagery and story beats that I’d never thought I’d ever see onscreen, characters like Shrike or Valentine that are a delight to watch. I’ve begun a deep dive into these cinematic travesties, the sci-fi and fantasy films that go ignored in a modern era while franchise installments seem to be the only things that make money. It’s true that Mortal Engines lost more money than any other film in history (you’d have to adjust for inflation to see if that’s completely true), but the ambition and talent behind it was clear. Movies like this are a rarity these days, but I hope everyone dealing with the current situation is open to trying these out. You’d be surprised just how difficult it is to be that imaginative, and there’s little like this out there with such a huge budget and unencumbered vision. Give it a shot, because I’m glad I finally did.