The November release of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes felt like such a quaint throwback to ye olde young adult dystopia craze that it prompted a wave of retrospectives on the genre. While the trend was never issued an official death certificate, it seems safe to carve 2018 — the year The Guardian, THR, CBR, and Rotten Tomatoes, among others, declared it moribund — on the tombstone.
2018 is the year The Maze Runner trilogy wrapped up, The Darkest Minds was a mega-flop, and the Divergent franchise was officially taken to a nice theater upstate. Meant to be Katniss Everdeen’s successor, its derivative ideas and shoddy storytelling turned audiences away in droves. Rapidly diminishing financial returns killed its fourth and final film, and when an attempt to salvage the saga on television also failed it felt like the genre died with it. But then, with just a few days left in the year, Mortal Engines puttered into theaters as a strange and forgotten coda.
Mortal Engines may have struck audiences as yet another YA dystopia, but they certainly couldn’t have called it derivative. Set a millennium after an apocalyptic war, humanity has regrouped in “traction cities,” mobile communities that wander the remains of Europe in search of what resources still remain. Larger cities, practicing “municipal Darwinism,” hunt smaller ones, seizing their goods and putting their people to work.
It’s a completely ridiculous premise, and yet it’s so ludicrous you can’t help but admire the audacity. The opening scene, which sees a colossal London harpoon and “ingest” a small German mining town, comes across like a steampunk remix of A New Hope. By the time it’s over you’re either hooked or turning off the TV.
Naturally, the story centers around the adventures of two young adults with protagonist names and romantic yearnings. Tom Natsworthy is an apprentice historian tasked with helping sort the Germans’ “old-tech” (modern society’s intense interest in everything from toasters to Minions is one of Mortal Engine’s more amusing touches). But Hester Shaw sneaks aboard and tries to assassinate Tom’s boss, Thaddeus Valentine, whose titles include Deputy Lord Mayor and Head of the Guild of the Historians. Yes, he’s the villain.
Tom intervenes, saving the Historian Mayor but learning a terrible secret that gets him kicked down the ol’ exhaust pipe alongside Hester. They have to work together to survive a surface full of scavengers, slavers, and other ne’er-do-wells, all while keeping a superweapon out of Valentine’s hands and fending off Shirke, the Terminator’s non-union steampunk equivalent. By the time Hester and Tom are rescued and then sold out by an old couple operating a bug-legged vehicle, it’s hard not to get caught up in Mortal Engine’s wild inventiveness. There’s a manic thrill that comes from the fact you’re never quite sure what’s coming next.
The story ultimately proves meandering and melodramatic, but Mortal Engines is visually inventive in the way most YA sludge wasn’t, from its treadwheels the size of skyscrapers to the industrial but decadent design of this neo-Victorian London. You might even get a bit invested in the sappiness. Most YA dystopias failed because their societies didn’t make a lick of sense (The Maze Runner is based on the premise that shoving teenagers into a deadly labyrinth will help solve a plague), but plot and design both fuel premise here. As silly as it is, you’ll buy that the people you meet do, in fact, live in a moving city, and you’ll want to know more about how that all works.
But then Mortal Engines makes one of the most calamitous storytelling blunders a movie has ever made: it admits its central conceit is stupid. Standing in opposition to predator cities like London is the Anti-Traction League, which is made of “static settlements,” which you may also know as “cities.” As Valentine explains in an evil-logue, perpetually moving an entire city-state around is simply too resource-intensive, and London will need to sack the static settlements to have any hope of survival.
That, essentially, makes Mortal Engines a movie about what a stupid premise Mortal Engines has, which is quite the blunder for a film that otherwise leans into its ridiculous conceit with such cheerful zeal. For all it borrows from Star Wars, it failed to note that Return of the Jedi didn’t climax with Palpatine admitting that authoritarian space empires are structurally ill-conceived. It’s still a fun ride, but it’s such a bizarre concession that it can’t be much more.
Peter Jackson acquired the rights to Philip Reeve’s novel in 2009, and had he promptly made Mortal Engines he may have had a hit, or at least a much friendlier market. Instead, he chose to inflict the Hobbit trilogy on an innocent world, leaving the steampunk to directorial debutant Christian Rivers, Jackson’s long-time storyboarder. The trailers lean heavily on “From the filmmakers behind the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit,” but trying to capture both the fading charms of the Tolkien trend and the final drops of the dystopian wave forced Rivers to broker an uneasy alliance where neither element was given quite enough emphasis to succeed.
Mortal Engines was savaged by critics who found little beyond the visuals to praise, but removed from the YA exhaustion that haunted 2018, there’s a charm that should see you through to the finish. Even just five years after its release it’s difficult to imagine a new movie taking swings this big, which makes Mortal Engines hard to dislike, even at its stupidest. In Hollywood’s fierce Darwinian struggle, it’s a secret survivor.