The Movie Guru: Peter Jackson-penned ‘Mortal Engines’ cheesy but entertaining
The Movie Guru
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action.
Screenplay by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peret Jackson.
Based on: “Mortal Engines” by Philip Reeve.
Directed by: Christian Rivers.
Starring: Haer Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang and more.
Grade: Two and a half stars.
When you’re craving delicious cheese, some movies satisfy as well as pizzas.
“Mortal Engines,” based on the 2001 novel by Philip Reeve, is a cheesy, predictable young adult romantic adventure that somehow manages to be wildly entertaining. Though a good chunk of that credit undoubtedly goes to the script team (who also happened to be responsible for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy), but good direction and an occasionally charming cast help overcome some of the movie’s failings. It’s far from perfect, but it goes down far more smoothly than it should.
Fighting for something more
The movie is set far in a post-apocalyptic future, where cities have gone mobile and roam the landscape looking for smaller cities they can absorb. When a young historian from London tries to stop an assassination attempt, he gets thrown out of the city and has to survive in the wilderness with a girl out for blood. When an ancient weapon is unearthed, however, the two have to fight for something more important than their own survival.
The movie improves on some significant moments from the book, simplifying some plot developments and making others more interesting and emotional. A pivotal moment between the female lead and her father figure becomes far richer, and another female character gets considerably more gumption and autonomy.
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No ‘Lord of the Rings’
Still, this is no “Lord of the Rings.” Important plot twists are telegraphed from about a thousand miles away, and some of them are far too melodramatic for the movie around them to justify.
A movie has to have a certain amount of gravitas in order to sustain the kind of moments that need their own swelling background music, and “Mortal Engines” mostly fails to achieve that level.
The casting also leaves an odd aftertaste. Everyone does a great job with their roles, but it’s hard not to notice that literally all of the people of color in the movie are in the supporting cast. In the young adult adventure genre, where supporting characters routinely throw themselves on the metaphorical sword to save the leads, the discrepancy becomes even more problematic.
But there’s still something about it. The characters are surprisingly endearing, there’s some genuine depth and subtlety in places and the pacing of the action is good.
If you have any interest in young adult romance and adventure, or even fantasy adventure, you’ll probably find something to like. Even when my inner critic was shaking her head, my inner fan was completely entertained.
Celebrating the villain
Occasionally, though, the movie managed to catch the critic’s attention as well. During a pivotal scene from the movie, we see the residents of London cheering on the action. Rich and poor alike celebrate each victory the same way we’ve seen in everything from sports movies to films that end in heroic rescues.
This time, though, they’re celebrating the villain. They’ve been told time and again that his victory is in their best interest, so their shouts and applause are for him. They’re cheering on death and destruction the same way they would a soccer game, and it’s chilling to watch. It even makes you think a little.
Sometimes, even the cheesiest pizzas can have unexpected depths.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.