CREDIT: Mark Pokorny/Universal Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila George, Ronan Raftery, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang

Director: Christian Rivers

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Guns, Knives, and Giant Metal Gears

Release Date: December 14, 2018

It’s not very often that you encounter a premise as fresh as that of Mortal Engines. In a dystopian future in which society has rebuilt itself following a planet-destroying war, cities are mobile, with the larger populations swallowing up smaller settlements as they chug along the land. Also, there’s a bizarre reference to the Minions of Despicable Me fame. The opening segment is invigorating, as the facially disfigured Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) gets consumed  into London and attempts to assassinate Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), head of the Guild of Historians. The clanking machinery and whirring gears are stunningly realized, bizarre but never quite disorienting. With a script by the Lord of the Rings team and a steampunk aesthetic, the pedigree and look are familiar, but with a first-time director in Christian Rivers (the storyboard artist for most of Jackson’s films) and a cast mostly made up of little-knowns, the vibe at first glance is wholly fresh.

Alas, after that kickoff, Mortal Engines mostly relies on tired fantasy tropes. There are discoveries about the truth of one’s parentage, flashbacks to growing up with a makeshift guardian, a long and arduous journey for characters to complete a mission and learn more about themselves along the way, and a big climactic battle in which all the chickens come home to roost. That formula can still work in this day and age, but it is just not particularly compelling in this case. At least there are some unique visual flourishes here and there to tide us over.

There is also plenty of room to ponder the philosophical query of what geographically defines a city in its most fundamental terms. If cities are constantly moving around, then what are they traversing across? Immobile cities, or something that we don’t even have a conception of in 2018? Of course, the cities of today are also moving, insofar as Earth is always orbiting around the Sun. Rivers and his cast and crew may very well have benefited from really poring more deeply into the quandary of relativity of location.

Mortal Engines is Recommended If You Like: Steampunk, Ambition above all else

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Traction Cities