“Mortal Engines:” Beautiful Steampunk with a Dense Story

“Mortal Engines” based on the book of the same name by Philip Reeve is directed by Christian Rivers with a screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson. 

I love Steampunk. I love a story that can incorporate Steampunk elements with a great plot. When I watched the previews for “Mortal Engines”, I thought it looked astoundingly gorgeous and the story sounded compelling. Coming out of the screening, my first thought was that the Steampunk elements are complex, beautiful with a story that is dense and detailed.


In the film, a cataclysmic conflict called the Sixty Minute War has taken place, ripping apart the Earth’s crust. Humanity has rebuilt utilizing roving cities that practice Municipal Darwinism, preying upon the resources left remaining, hunting down smaller cities and absorbing them. In opposition is the Anti-Traction League that have built “static” cities based in Asia, protected by a Shield wall, powerful guns, and airships. The city of London has chased down a small mining town. Within the townspeople of the town, a woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) has imbedded herself with the intention of assassinating Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), Head of the Historians. A young apprentice Historian, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), prevents the assassination, chasing Hester. Hester exits the city via a chute but tells Tom Thaddeus killed her mother.

When Tom reveals this to Thaddeus, Thaddeus pushes him down the chute as well. Tom and Hester join forces, pursued by Shrike (Stephan Lang), a reconstructed cyborg, eventually receiving aid from Anna Fang (Jihae), one of the leaders of the Anti-Traction League.

Meanwhile, Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George) and an apprentice engineer Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery) find out that her father is building ancient technology, the kind used to tear the world apart. Tom and Hester also discover Valentine’s plan, Along with Anna and the rest of the Anti-Traction League, they must find a way to prevent Valentine from using it to destroy the Shield Wall and use Asia as his new Hunting Grounds.

One of the first elements you notice is the technology, a mix of new and old. The Steampunk technology is well designed, detailed and gorgeous. One of the aspects I like the most is the lack of uniformity. In the real world, everyone has diverse technology and clothing driven by different cultures.

This part of the worldbuilding in the novel is embraced by the designers of the film and fully incorporated into the movie. This creates the feel of a complex and rich world with areas waiting outside what we see in the movie. The technology is well-designed as well. The different airships look realistic and dynamic. The cities are each different, unusual but organic to their purpose.

The Traction city of London has highlighted architecture from the current city, envisioned through the post-apocalyptic world that the film depicts. Anyone who loves steampunk will get real enjoyment out of the designs.

The acting is impressive. Hugo Weaving rarely fails to deliver and he is riveting in the role of the villain, charming and ruthless. Hera Hilmar is engrossing as HesterShaw, her drive for revenge for the death of her mother real and passionate. The actress also brings subtler emotions to play in her interactions with Robert Sheehan’s character.

Robert Sheehan is engaging as Tom Natsworthy, pulled in to a complex plot but with knowledge that can help Hester and a desire to help others. Jihae is incredibly kick ass as Ann Fang. I love her ability to fight and create a character that is wise and kind. The director does a great job of pulling together a diverse cast into a cohesive whole. EvenStephen Lang, behind the makeup for Shrike, is a compelling, charismatic character.

However, what causes issues for the plot is the sheer amount of story. There is a lot going on in the movie. We have several threads to follow, Tom and Hester, Anna, Katherine along with what Thaddeus Valentine is plotting. In addition, you have the character of Shrike which could be an entire film of his own. The story is dense, detailed and ending up feeling way longer because of all the different threads. While I can see how they all end up fitting together, it was just too much for the movie. While the action is intense and well paced, it gets bogged down by all the world building and complexity of the plot. This movie would have worked better as a series, I believe, giving the writers more time to explore the rich complexity of the novels.

Beyond the denseness of the plot, the introduction was a little odd for me, making me feel like the film was taking itself way to seriously. There is also a lot of terminology used that makes me feel like I needed to take notes. While a lot of it is explained in context, it was tiring trying to follow all of it. What helped was the action and the acting.

If you love steampunk, though, I feel like this movie will be entertaining. I enjoyed the action sequences. While I don’t go into detail, it is well paced and keeps you on the edge of your seat. The diverse world building made the writer in me want to take notes and I loved the way each city is constructed differently, highlighting different aspects of the world. The acting is engrossing, passionate, and entertaining. I loved Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae and Hera Hilmar. They brought the world to life and were a pleasure towatch. While not perfect, this movie was compelling and stunning.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Medusas.


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