It’s a thousand years in the future and the Earth has been decimated. The few people that are left mostly live in mobile cities; resources are so scarce that cities have become mobile behemoths that zip around consuming smaller cities for both metal, mechanical and human resources. The apocalypse happened after a super-weapon called Medusa was created and annihilated most global population centers. But that’s ancient news. Now “historians” scrape through the ceaseless rubble hoping to find a mint-condition toaster, computer or phone that can be studied or preserved.
The philosophy of this dark new era in human history is known as Municipal Darwinism and it basically justifies “predator” cities that thrive by destroying all the smaller cities they encounter. Chief among the predator cities is London, ruled by the Lord Mayor Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide) but really managed by historian, inventor and celebrity author Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Not everyone supports Municipal Darwinism and there’s a counter-movement known as the Anti-Traction League. Their leader is the elusive Anna Fang (Jihae).
The central figures in Mortal Engines, however, are Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an apprentice historian, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young woman who infiltrates London to wreak revenge on her mother’s killer, and Katherine Valentine (Leila George), naïve daughter of Thaddeus who opposes Municipal Darwinism from their palatial London flat. After an assassination attempt goes awry, Hester and Tom are thrown off London and left to fend for themselves in the Great Hunting Ground. Hester’s lived in the wilds for years, however, and is quite capable of managing. Tom, on the other hand, has never been away from London and is completely overwhelmed by the experience and the ceaseless threats.
Imagine a Star Wars movie told in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world and you’ll have the general feel of Mortal Engines. The denizens of London, for the most part, are the bad guys, and the Anti-Traction League, hidden in their sprawling city behind a massive city-stopping wall, are the Rebel alliance. There’s sacrifice, camaraderie, heroism, good people following bad leaders and even a mighty destructive weapon vs innocent civilians dynamic that will have you immediately thinking “that’s no moon!”.
As a teen literature novel, Mortal Engines also focuses on interpersonal relationships too. Okay, I’ll just say “romance” and get it over with. Tom and Hester are forced to rely on each other to survive and succeed at her mission, but will they ever like each other? Will Katherine find a boy? Yes, yes they will. Potentially insipid, the chemistry between Tom (Sheehan) and Hester (Hilmar) works well and it’s enjoyable to watch them slowly learn to trust each other.
One of the most interesting characters in the movie, however, is the cyborg Shrike (Stephen Lang). To some extent he’s the Gollum of Mortal Engines. I won’t spoil anything but encourage you to consider his motivations and actions as the film proceeds. If great films are created out of archetypes, Shrike is unquestionably one of the most intriguing. He’s also frightening because he represents a very personal consequence of the over-reliance on technology, just as the Medusa weapon is the same writ large, a massive hammer for power-hungry rulers.
With Peter Jackson as producer and the production team behind Lord of the Rings and other blockbusters involved with the visuals, it’s no surprise that Mortal Engines looks beautiful. It is, by far, the best realization of the steampunk aesthetic ever shown on the big screen and is well worth seeing in IMAX, even more than once.
However, there’s a massive amount of suspension of disbelief required for this strange world and its endlessly illogical elements. If you can just accept the world as initially realized by author Philip Reeve and created for the big screen by director Christian Rivers, you’ll find that Mortal Engines really is great cinematic fun.