'Mortal Engines' Thunders in as One of 2018's Most Surprising Movies

Ignore the negative reviews and submit to this steampunk spectacle.

If you’ve ever wished Mad Max had less grit and a wider, more juvenile Young Adult appeal, then Mortal Engines is for you.

Look, I will never think that roaming cities on wheels is anything but a profoundly dumb concept for a dystopia, but the most surprising thing about Mortal Engines — a movie that wields that very premise — was how much I loved it. Despite getting a ton of negative reviews, Mortal Engines is a thrilling and unexpected ride that takes tired dystopian cliches and flips them upside down. It may feel familiar at times, there’s still tons of interesting action and plenty of surprises.

Mortal Engines takes place over a thousand years after a “Sixty Minute War” devastated the planet (think super-nukes using “quantum energy weapons”), cities and small settlements now scrounge the wastelands scavenging and stealing supplies. London is the biggest and baddest, shrouded in machine exhaust as gears grind everywhere. At its helm sits a sneering Hugo Weaving as its mad scientist hellbent on resurrecting the dark powers of the past.

'Mortal Engines' London
London's patriotic doors open into a massive workshop where smaller cities and towns can be broken down for spare parts and fuel.

If you think that all sounds like a steampunk enthusiast’s wet dream, you’re not wrong. Mortal Engines does for that odd subgenre what Lord of the Rings did for fantasy and Star Wars did for science fiction. This movie doesn’t quite come close to the world-building or wide acclaim either of those iconic franchises commands. Instead, Mortal Engines leans into its weirdness to create something unique.

In London, the wealthy elite literally lord above everyone else in their utopia while the “greasers” slum it up far below with zero control over where London’s upper echelon steers their massive city. Hugo Weaving steals the short as a charming political leader who’s quickly revealed to be the chief villain.

'Mortal Engines' Thaddeus Valentine Hugo Weaving
Huge Weaving didn't play Red Skull so he could Thaddeus Valentine, a menacing villain who's motives never really become clear in 'Mortal Engines'

But Mortal Engines really shines when we finally leave the grime of London and take to the skies, which in this world are populated by futuristic airships. It feels like a genuine adventure the likes of which we haven’t seen in a really long time, but it’s a shame it takes so long to get the plot sorted out.

Despite using tons of tired cliches common to dystopian fiction, Mortal Engines eventually reaches a point where it actually manages to surprise, especially once we meet the story’s best character, Shrike.

One part Fallout Ghoul and one part Terminator, Shrike emerges as an interesting narrative obstacle during the core mission to take down Thaddeus Valentine. But I won’t spoil how that unfolds, it would give away some of the best things Mortal Engines has going for it. Suffice to say that he’s one of the most interesting ideas this movie has going for it.

Ultimately, Mortal Engines kind of feels like a steampunk Frankenstein creature cobbled together from pieces of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s easy to see Mortal Engines as a bastardization of one or more of these similar properties, but if you can embrace the weirdness of it all, then you’re in for one hell of a ride.

Mortal Engines is now in theaters.


Check out a behind-the-scenes video about the special effects in Mortal Engines.

'Mortal Engines' has some stunning visuals.
Media via Universal Pictures