Mortal Engines: A Review-ette

I just saw Mortal Engines. I have no idea why it is getting such bad reviews. Was it the next Perfect Movie™? No, not at all. But was far more good than bad, only one part that was truly bad, and several elements that were quite good. 

Now, I’m a critic by nature. I can find something wrong with pretty much anything—I even have a couple quibbles with Hamilton—and tend to focus on the negative. So keep that in mind when reading this. This is how I talk about a movie a very much enjoyed, and wasn’t for a minute bored.

The Bad: the music over the first half of the closing credits was jarringly off. If it was a callback to something earlier, I didn’t recognize it. It didn’t make me think of anything else in the movie, musical or otherwise, and was tonally at odds with everything I’d just watched. It felt like the closing music to Bridges of Madison County or the like. The music for the second half of the closing credits was great, however, and I didn’t have any complaints about the soundtrack during the movie itself.

And that’s it. That’s the only truly bad thing. 

All of the other negatives are common to lots of YA fare, and were in many cases handled better than a lot of other movies.

I wasn’t sold on the romance subplot. Other than propinquity, I didn’t see anything that justified those two protagonists being romantic. But, unlike some YA movies, it also wasn’t a major part of the plot, it evolved fairly organically, and the romantic elements didn’t bloom at all until 2/3rds of the way through the movie. Also, there’s the fact that there was no artificial love triangle where the girl has to overlook the “nice guy” and keep throwing herself at the “bad boy” until a suitable point in the story, nor was either person obviously horrible. And at least all that propinquity (and the situations they therefore helped each other through) give some plausible underpinnings

For the most part, the movie telegraphed who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. There were a couple exceptions but, as with most YA lit (in my experience), the twists are the exception. 

You could immediately see which characters had plot immunity. Again, not uncommon with YA lit, particularly on the big screen. But that did mean that for about the first half, there wasn’t much tension. It wasn’t until the second half that any named characters without plot immunity showed up, and the tension immediately ramped up. 

Which gets to the good-to-great parts:

This is the best performance by Hugo Weaving since the original Matrix, I think. He blended seamlessly into the part (no “Tom Cruise in a hat” going on here) and played him quite well. As a villain, he had some nuance. The acting was generally good enough, and some of the actors were also quite naturalistic. But, really, “nobody yanked me out of the story” is better than many movies manage, and good enough for me.

I loved the world they’ve built! Every bit of it. Visually, it was stunning. It didn’t completely make sense, but it made enough sense to hold together. And the best part was how we learned about it: No infodumps! (Well, ok, one pre-opening-credits infodump that felt like 60-90 seconds, and really only gave us 3 facts, so I’m not even sure it qualifies.) We learned about the world a bit at a time, very naturalistically, in the course of scenes. Mostly by being shown rather than being told. They told us enough that I knew what was going on and could make predictions about how the world worked, but not all at once. We sometimes found things out when we needed them, sometimes a little bit before we needed to know them. And there were surprises and complexities to the world. And, perhaps my favorite part, there’s clearly more to the world than we learned about in this movie, but not so much that it felt like they were just teasing us for an ongoing series. Instead, it felt like the world was deeper than we were shown, so there were reasons for the things that weren’t fully explained. This is probably the first time I’ve seen a movie adapted from a book and wanted to go read the book. If only to find out more about Shrike’s background. (Usually, I either feel like I’ve gotten enough of the book on the screen that reading it would be redundant, or I feel like I’ve gotten as much of that combo of world/characters as I have interest.) 

Similarly, the pacing in general was quite good. Nothing dragged, nothing felt rushed or forced. We got to the ending at roughly the right time and I never was tempted to look at the time to see how much movie there was left. And the action scenes were at least good and in a few cases excellent (though, honestly, the chases were far better than the fights).

Honestly, if not for the worldbuilding, I’d say this was merely a good-enough movie—no glaring flaws, but not much exceptional, either. But paring a movie that doesn’t have glaring flaws with a fascinating world gorgeously realized makes this a good movie, in my estimation. It’s not an award-winner, but neither does it deserve to be in the company of Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. There’s nothing glaringly bad, and much that is quite good in Mortal Engines, all of which showcases great world-building. 

My summary: I’ll definitely see it again, and wouldn’t rule out paying theater prices for a second time.

One comment on “Mortal Engines: A Review-ette

  1. woodelf says:

    Putting this in a comment because here there be spoilers.

    One complaint I’ve seen in several reviews is that in the book, the villain is the culmination of “municipal darwinism” and thematically represents their inherently self-destructive philosophy: that is, that he is showing that “doing it right” leads to what he’s doing. While in the movie he’s working against the status quo in a sense, and therefore he is no longer a critique that municipal darwinism inevitably leads to bad outcomes, but is instead an example of a bad outcome for unrelated reasons, leaving municipal darwinism unscathed.

    I don’t think those reviewers were paying attention. The movie spells out in visuals, plot, and dialogue that municipal darwinism is unsustainable, and makes it clear that Valentine’s drive is in part because the system has failed—that the only way they can continue on is by expanding the prey supply, going after static cities, and if they can’t breach the wall their society will soon collapse, even though they are at the top of the food change. This may be a change from his motivation and actions in the book, but I think it is still thematically a critique of municipal darwinism and is still saying that it is inherently unsustainable and that his actions are a natural culmination of it.

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