Mortal Engines fails to get into gear

By Shona Powell

Mortal Engines could have been something incredible. It could have situated itself as the film which brought Steampunk into mainstream awareness. No longer would eccentric, goggle-clad professors and steam-powered machines be the domain of a fringe culture. Brass could have been the new black. Indeed, as the trailers dropped, it seemed to have promised larger-than-life machines rolling across vast expanses of landscape; a physical embodiment of the alternate science fiction which so heavily constitutes Steampunk. The pith helmets and brass computers were glimpses of a promise to deliver the old to the new; to deliver on what Philip Reeve’s original novel intended – the first of four in a quartet – and show to the world that this was a genre worth watching on the big screen.

what made its performance go so horribly wrong?

Yet when the film finally entered cinemas, it became a box office bomb. So what made its performance go so horribly wrong? With 26% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average critical score of 44 on Metacritic, it is no wonder people elected to stay away from this film. Critical consensus seems to place the film’s issues mostly on the shoulders of the cast of characters. Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly writes that “The actors, apart from the always-dependable Weaving, don’t add much screen presence to their hand-me-down roles.” Hollywood Reporter’s John Defore also seems to echo this sentiment, citing the characters as “moderately decent company but hardly compelling” to witness. For all its cinematic grandeur, then, the characters themselves offer little to the critical eye.

Whilst Mortal Engines seemed excitingly unique in its trailers, it is ultimately dependent on its characters to provide a sense of purpose; to prove to the audience that this is a film worth watching. If the characters are bland, then the whole plot is muddied by a glaring lack of attachment to these figures who are facing various trials and tribulations. Put simply, there is little tension, if any, since the characterisation is nothing remarkable.

The cinematic experience of Mortal Engines winds up being a far cry from what the trailers hinted at. The CGI, which does look fantastic and brings the Steampunk aesthetic into a modern world, seems little more than a mask designed to distract from the film’s underlying issues. Perhaps the most glaring fault, however, is that for all its visual innovation, Mortal Engines feels like something everyone has seen before. The characters of Hester and Tom, for example, feel similar to Katniss and Peeta of The Hunger Games fame. It does seem like a typical Young Adult film that has had Steampunk slapped atop it so that the studio can say, “Look at this film! See how stunning it is!” at the expense of a plot and unique cast of characters that the audience actually feels invested in.

The cinematic experience of Mortal Engines winds up being a far cry from what the trailers hinted at.

In spite of all it could have been, the sad reality is that Mortal Engines is a missed opportunity. Where it does well, it excels; the Steampunk aesthetic of the film was executed brilliantly. From its set design to the clothing choices, it speaks to the subgenre well. The action scenes, particularly in the first half, offer an exciting thrill ride which keeps the heart racing in anticipation and is genuinely fun to watch. Where this film fails, ultimately, is in the lack of characters people can really invest themselves in. Hugo Weaving’s performance as Thaddeus Valentine has been praised by critics, and he is absolutely a delight to see in this film.

The rest of the characters, however, lack a sense of individuality. They seem bland, as though they are only there because they have to be rather than to drive the plot forwards. Had they been more unique, the film may have had more to offer – Steampunk characters are known for being quirky individuals, not simply in their appearance but in the way they speak and act. If this had been demonstrated better on screen, casual audiences and critics alike would have found this film incredible. Unfortunately, the characters in Mortal Engines could be placed in any other Young Adult film – The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and so on – and it is unlikely that anyone would be able to tell the difference.

Steampunk is a subgenre full of untapped cinematic potential

Perhaps one day the right combination of cast and crew, character design, and source material will come to fruition, and Steampunk sci-fi will find its place in mainstream cinema. Until such a time, however, brass goggles and steam-powered zeppelins will remain on the periphery of awareness within annual festivals and a devoted cult following. Ultimately, Steampunk is a subgenre full of untapped cinematic potential, so hopefully the next attempt at translating it to the big screen will bring this niche subculture further into a mainstream space of awareness.

Photograph: prettysleepy1 via Pixabay Creative Commons

One thought on “Mortal Engines fails to get into gear

  • This is too bad. I believe the world would receive some fresh Steampunk with open arms. I have come to follow this genre of late and have authored two books flavored with this exotic ingredient. The Bones of Jack and Curse of a Devil feature an English Victorian Villain:Spring Heeled Jack as he is brought back to life from a hiatus in late 19th century and follows three young adults to New York City in 1900 to wreak all kinds of havoc. The collateral characters have all kinds of quirks and motivations.


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