Watching an adaptation of something you loved as a child is always difficult because you end up judging it against a version of the story that never existed outside your head. Your childhood worldview and reference points create an entire imaginary world based on what stuck out to you at the time, which inevitably missed large parts of what the story was trying to tell you. Which is why it’s with great trepidation that I’d been looking forward to Mortal Engines.
This film is the story of Tom and Hester, a naïve British Museum trainee and a vengeance-obsessed runway, who find themselves stuck wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland after being thrown off London by Tom’s idol, the famous adventurer Thaddeus Valentine. London, like almost all cities in this day and age, rolls around on giant caterpillar tracks eating its brethren.
Valentine, it turns out, is obsessed with his secret superweapon development programme using ancient, pre-apocalypse technology; he plans to use the weapons to invade the traditional, land-based Anti-Traction League, who have walled themselves off from the rest of the world to avoid being eaten.
Mortal Engines has almost all the hallmarks of a fumbled adaptation. The huge ensemble cast and elaborate plot have been crammed into two hours with little regard for pacing or character development. Characters speak in forced exposition more often than they do in believable human dialogue. Large chunks of the story feel pointless, only there for the sake of keeping the plot together without completely rewriting it.
A lot of it feels like it’s missing whole scenes. The cast will arrive at a new, spectacular city with a lot of amazing aerial shots, and within five minutes it will be a flaming wreck. The overabundance of characters have an underabundance of personality; the Anti-Traction League, in particular, is made up of a cast so bland I can’t even call them one-note, because they don’t even have a note. The film also adds quite a bit of action that wasn’t in the book, while simultaneously cutting out a lot that was. A lot of the new stuff feels rather empty and airless, barely advancing the plot while padding the runtime. The climax especially has been drastically extended in a way that feels overlong and tiring.
The world is also shockingly lacking in personality. The cast travel from London to a giant, floating airship city and then to China and back, but we never get a sense of any of them as places. London doesn’t feel like a city so much as a collection of sets and overhead shots, often with that uncanny valley feeling of foreigners attempting to write English culture. The city behind the Anti-Traction League’s great wall is a handful of scenic vistas and generic street market shots.
The geography too is hard to make sense of. We never get an idea of the world the cities inhabit, and the story has very little sense of narrative scale, barely feeling present outside of what we see onscreen. London starts the movie somewhere in northern Europe (resulting in some funny Brexit references that do not remotely fit the story), then within a few days it drives to China. The second it turns east, characters immediately know where it’s heading, as if there was nothing else in the 7000 miles between.
But the most disappointing adaptational change is the removal of the books’ firm commitment to moral ambiguity. Anna Fang, the main Anti-Traction League character, is an infamous terrorist who, in the books, happily talks about destroying entire cities and killing hundreds of thousands of innocents, seeing this as preferable to the same thing happening to her people. Along with the rest of her personality this is entirely missing from the film. The League’s leader (entirely new here) is the sort of blandly friendly character you write when you don’t know anything about a culture, but desperately want to appear progressive in your attitudes towards it. This outlook extends to the ending, a generic and unconvincing “can’t we all just get along?” statement that, even divorced from the context of adaptation, feels like a total copout.
It’s also responsible for the film’s bizarre tokenism. In the book the Anti-Traction League are explicitly meant to be China. They live in what used to be China, are composed (in the first book) entirely of Chinese people and live behind a Great Wall. But the film turns them into the same kind of blandly multi-ethnic rainbow coalition Hollywood loves to use to pretend that it’s progressive. While still culturally coded as Chinese, 3 out of the League’s 5 representatives in the film, none of whom have any personality or memorable qualities, are a black man, an Indian woman, and a Viking – all with European accents. It’s really weird, as if the filmmakers have heard of the concept of diversity, second-hand, from someone who was really drunk, and whose entire understanding of Asia was cribbed from Doctor Strange.
Which is not to say there’s nothing good in this movie. Visually it’s spectacular, with some of the most impressive visuals I’ve seen in any movie this year. Every city feels huge and the chase scenes with them are well directed, the opening in particular being a remarkable achievement. It’s a film with all the spectacle of a Marvel movie with the budget of Robin Hood.
There is one thing the film does really well, though: Hester. Despite everything else I’ve said, and the director’s creepy comments about her, it pulls off her story of grief, trauma and revenge against her mother’s murderer very well. Every flashback and character moment the film gives her when it slows down feels genuine, making the eventual payoff feel earned, even though the film undercuts it five seconds later. It will also feel really strange if you read the books, as said payoff is the biggest 180 from her book characterisation possible.
To be honest I’m not sure how fair I’m being to this movie. I can’t quite tell which of my criticisms are legitimate and which are merely fanboy moaning. Overall, I wouldn’t call Mortal Engines a bad movie. It’s mostly engaging, has a huge amount of visual imagination, and occasionally creates genuinely great moments, mostly with Hester. But you can’t escape the feeling you’re missing something watching it. It’s a story that feels incomplete.