Film Review – Mortal Engines (2018)

by Olaf Lesniak
Mortal Engines

What are the chances Mortal Engines survives this holiday season from the clutches of Into the Spider-VerseAquamanMarry Poppins Returns, and Bumblebee combined? Slim, I tell you. Universal might have overestimated their chances when it came to its marketability in such a crowded time frame. I guess none of this should matter if the movie was at least good, right?

The following review will be spoiler free.


Directed By: Christian Rivers

Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson

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

After the cataclysmic event of the 21st century, the world has never been the same. Over a century has passed and civilization has taken on a new meaning. People are turning into barbarians, searching for food, withstanding the harsh conditions, and creating cities on wheels that attack smaller ones as if it were a pirate’s game.

In the middle of all this, the story surrounds a mysterious girl (Hera Hilmar) with a drive for vengeance to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving), an important political figure in London. Her mission is shortly interrupted when a young low-class man gets in the way of things (Sheehan) forcing their fates to come together for a long journey through the wicked, wild world.


I’ve purposefully gone out of my way to avoid the trailers for this movie. I heard about Peter Jackson’s involvement and about some moving vehicle cities. That’s it!

The film’s world-building was compared to the caliber of The Lord of the Rings. That was obvious marketing hogwash I wouldn’t buy for a second. It reminded me of the time when James Cameron was paid to call Terminator: Genisys a worthy Terminator sequel.

Then, I saw the movie and the influx of information put things more clearly into perspective. I found out two things: this was based on a book, and Peter Jackson had a notable influence by co-writing and co-producing with the rest of the Tolkien-verse screenwriting team. Neither of which made me feel any better about the movie, if not worse.

There’s an interview where two of the cast members address some of the criticism posed at the film. Jihae and Leila George hit back with points such as calling it an original idea and with heartfelt moments. They voice a lot of positives that do in fact exist within the movie, but none of them include a cohesive plot.

I do agree that similarities exist in all films, that’s something you can’t run away from. The interviewer’s position sort of lost its subject the moment he started listing off other franchises with similar ideas. Art is all about inspiration. What he should have addressed was whether these bigger than life concepts are presented as freshly as they are in theory.

There Is Little Excuse for the Artificial World

Mortal Engines

image via Ploygon

Now we get to the part where I tell you this movie comes nowhere near the expansive world of Tolkien, but I’ll do you one better: it’s way worse. The characters spout exposition left and right as if the filmmakers knew someone wouldn’t understand.

The idea of “show, don’t tell” is non-existent. There is too much expositional dialogue that doesn’t need to exist. Even in the one scene where they actually “show” it feels as if there couldn’t have been a less imaginative way to do so.

Mortal Engines

image via Bloody DIsgusting

Yes, the world looks pretty. Each location has its own style and visual appearance. Sadly, it’s missing details to make the world feel alive. All of its people and cultures don’t stand out. It’s all an illusion to make it resemble briskness.

Mortal Engines is held back by connecting itself to our contemporary times. The movie takes place in the future, meaning our world existed before theirs. There are multiple examples throughout numerous entertainment platforms that utilize this to its benefits. Here it leads to some unimaginative, pointless and distasteful uses that reaffirm the uselessness to what this movie considers world-building.

Mortifying Characters Lead to Unrepairable Subplots

Mortal Engines

image via

There are too many unnecessary characters in this movie. One of those is Leila George’s character, who has an arc that goes nowhere. No one cares for her story and I get the feeling its inclusion was to fill the runtime.

The villain is probably the worst part about Mortal Engines. Hugo Weaving is a talented actor so seeing him in this role makes me question how he agreed to this film in the first place. Valentine’s actions and motivations don’t add up and he doesn’t seem to have chemistry with anyone around him.

Mortal Engines

image via

Now we come to the trickier part when it comes to judging the movie, and I’m talking about the two main leads. One is a stereotypical snarky, independent, rational, swift girl while the other is your typical clumsy, ignorant, charming boy. It’s a new trend in Hollywood that’s quickly getting old. There is nothing appealing when these traits are all we get for the first act of the film.

Eventually, they grow into stronger personalities. It’s a shame it took them this late to find the sweet spot. Jihae’s character is the clear standout. She’s one of two characters you like instantly, bringing in a fun edge to the movie. Her personality is firm and wise, never eager to overreact in the most demanding situation. It’s partly because of her that the plot ends up improving somewhat .

Mortal Engines Requires an Upgrade

Mortal Engines

image via PAGEONE

The plot isn’t all bad. The most popular franchises are generic in parts if you think about them enough. It’s usually about the good guy beating the bad guy, and that’s alright if done correctly. We don’t give it much thought because there’s something else it offers. We look at the care and detail put into the whole.

And Mortal Engines does that, only not to its main plot. I’m talking about the movie’s most relevant side plot. In this section of the story we get natural character progression, an emotional crux and a tangible explanation of our surroundings.

It involves my favorite character in the movie, Shrike. He, through his own existence, tells us a lot about what makes this world stand out from your Star Wars, Avengers, and Mad Maxes of the film industry.  I would’ve appreciated diving deeper into his mythos and expanding from it. The side plot isn’t blameless of flaws, either, but it’s also here we dive into this story and begin to like the main characters.

What we ended up with was just a re-skin of something before. Focusing on the elements I mentioned would have helped it become a worthy contender among today’s major franchises. It’s here we get the true bits of original storytelling and emotion Jihae was talking about in the interview above.

Final Thoughts

Mortal Engines‘s problems stem from a plot that never worked to begin with. The main story is generic; the character decisions make no sense; everything feels thrown together last-minute and there’s no central theme. Surrounding it we have other side plots that lead nowhere — with exception to one in particular — but those pieces show the movie’s fear of focusing on the true, extraordinary intricacies of this world that would have made this film fascinating, if only for a little while.

I see what makes this movie seem different, even if it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the pack in the end.

Grade: C

Mortal Engines

image via Den of Geek

Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Mortal Engines? Comment down below!

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JennaMNeal December 10, 2018 - 1:48 am

That original post was crazy long and didn’t say much about why it’s bad other than it’s bad and failed. I am curious if you read the books and did the story itself fail or the conversion fail? Looked cool but sounds like plot has holes or unfinished business were in the movie but are they missing from the books too. Thanks hoping to learn from this.

Olaf Lesniak December 12, 2018 - 2:37 pm

Hey, I’m not sure which original post you’re talking about but I’m glad this one did a better job. To answer your question I did not read the book so I wouldn’t be able to comment on that. From my own research the story for the most part seems in tact with an exception of a couple changes.

I’m not gonna make false assumptions, but this could very much be like the Ready Player One situation. I hated the book, and the movie was just as bad.

Annlyel James December 9, 2018 - 1:49 pm

I knew this movie was going to be bad. You have confirmed my suspicion. Thank you.

Olaf Lesniak December 9, 2018 - 7:22 pm

Just doing my part. salutes

Annlyel James December 10, 2018 - 5:42 am


Nick Kush December 9, 2018 - 12:42 pm

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