A Steampunk Take on Mortal Engines
Maker and Key City Steampunk Festival organizer Wheeler Stone weighs in on the movie
Photo: Universal Pictures and MRC
Having read the entire Mortal Engines quartet by Philip Reeve, I was eagerly awaiting the movie adaptation. I thought it could launch steampunk into a new realm of public awareness, and inspire greatness in all makers. What I got was a desire for. . . something more.
As you may not have seen the movie, I won’t give away too much plot.
I greatly respect Peter Jackson’s work and his aesthetic. The movie was visually stunning. The costuming indeed had a steampunk flair, with a side of post apocalyptic. (Now I have to make my wife a leather trimmed chain mail top, a la Anna Fang.) The set design, though mostly CGI, was also of a steam / industrial flair. That is correct, I just said “Steamdustrial.”
My only real issue with the visuals is that the scenery seemed to whisk by at such a rate that it was difficult to take in. I found myself wanting to see more of the grandness of mobile London as it was described in the book.
The film also excelled from an acting standpoint. Hugo Weaving made a fantastic “Valentine”. Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmar were also believable as Tom and Hester. That said, the book’s Hester Shaw was much less comely from her “injury,” a huge part of her character development. This was missing from the film.
Then there was the script...
The movie started out true to the book. But about halfway in, it took a left turn and never really corrected. It seemed as if the director (Christian Rivers) and the writers (Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens), suddenly got tired of Mortal Engines halfway through. Then they picked up a mashup script of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and decided to produce that instead.
If you did not read the book, you will be entertained and can sit back and enjoy the spectacle. As someone who did read the book, I was saying “but what about...” pretty much the entire last half of the film. If the movie had followed the book’s plot line toward the end, it would not have received so much criticism for being derivative.
Should you spend your money to see it in a theater? My answer is a solid “perhaps.”
The movie has a lot of spectacle that translates well to the big screen. But I’m also looking forward to watching it at home, where I can pause the movie and appreciate the design aspects. That will be worth the original ticket price.
For now, we are all still awaiting the “Big Steampunk Movie,” because this isn’t it.
Wheeler Stone is the proprietor of Doc Stone Studios, where he designs and produces custom-made wearable art from brass and leather. He’s also the organizer of the Key City Steampunk Festival in Frederick, Maryland.
More coverage of Mortal Engines
Here is a sampling of reviews from other websites. You can find additional reaction on Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has an approval rating of 27 percent, and Metacritic, where it has a Metascore of 44 out of 100 (4 positive, 20 mixed and 8 negative reviews).
“My main problem is the story. Damn this film is beautiful and fun and exciting...but it felt like Star Wars and The Force Awakens the last 30 minutes. Minus a few bumps and odd story plots, I would give it a 6.8 [on a 10-point scale]. Will it revive steampunk? No. Will it help. . . maybe? . . . I recommend it before it goes into small theaters and see it with a crowd. It will be more fun!” — Eric Jon Larson, founder of TeslaCon (full review).
“A long road trip that leaves you queasy at journey’s end, Mortal Engines falls into the pitfalls of book-to-movie adaptations. Too much exposition, too many characters and too many explosions will have you driving elsewhere.” — Jennifer Bisset, CNET (full review)
“The film is basically a steampunk Star Wars, with a bit of low-octane Gilliam and Gaiman on the side. . . There are some lively things about Mortal Engines, and the performances are game enough. Yet in all its effortful steampunkiness, Mortal Engines isn’t a film which is particularly exciting or funny.” — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (full review)
“The Lord of the Rings screenwriting group of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson has produced an entertaining post-apocalyptic action adventure while streamlining some of the book’s later sections. . . Christian Rivers makes an impressive feature directorial debut in this enjoyable post-apocalyptic adventure.” — Iain McNally, Startburst (full review)
“[T]he guiding model for the plot — rebel alliances, secret family histories, London as a terrestrial Death Star — is almost certainly Star Wars, whose knockoffs are so numerous that it seems useless to dock points for effort. As these things go, Mortal Engines offers a fair amount of fun.” — Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (full review)
“While most of Mortal Engines is a by-the-numbers dystopian teen saga, the chase between London and a small mining town is a feast for the eyes. . . I’d almost recommend seeing the movie just for that part—and single-named performer Jihae as the rebel leader Anna Fang, who is so cool it almost hurts.” — Beth Elderkin, io9 (full review)
“There is fine craftsmanship on the screen, and the acting is competent, but the movie never quite reaches magical heights. . . [It has] too many battles, chases, subplots, and exposition. Key characters disappear for long stretches, and even the conceit of predator cities gets lost in all the traffic.” — David Lewis San Francisco Chronicle (full review)
Related coverage: Mortal Engines is a big loser at the box office.
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