Ladies and gentlemen, I am a nerd. I have been one all my life. I obsess over nerdish things like Star Trek and Doctor Who. I read the “Sword Art Online” books with just as much zeal as I watch the TV shows. I try harder than most to find ways to defend the Star Wars prequels. I have had entire conversations consisting solely of quotes from The Simpsons.
But there is one piece of geekdom that I have never, and will never embrace, and that is Steampunk. For those blissfully ignorant of the term, it’s a subgenre of sci-fi and fantasy that posits futuristic or alternative societies that incorporate 19th century technology. I fully admit that I just don’t get the appeal. It works for some creative cosplay, I guess, but of all the sci-fi and fantasy conceits I’ve encountered over my life, I just could never wrap my head around the concept of a future world, with all its future technology, deciding, “You know what we need more of? Dirigibles!”
There are only two contexts where Steampunk has been tolerable for me. One is the Oscar-winning short film Helium from about five years ago, which told the tragic tale of a terminally ill young boy being comforted and prepared for death by a janitor who tells made-up stories of the titular vision of the afterlife, where tiny islands are levitated by zeppelins and sick children can get well. It was so wonderfully rendered in the film and the story so beautifully sad that I could get over the oddity. The other realm where it works is in Japanese Role-Playing video games like the Final Fantasy series, and part of that is because of the immersive gameplay that’s been going strong for over 30 years, paving the way for over-the-top graphics and game engine design. The whole thing could be dinosaurs (and some of it is) and it would work just as well. The games just happened to go in the Steampunk direction, and the best games are so good at their core experience that even vitriolic hatred of the backdrop can be ignored.
Now we have Mortal Engines, produced and co-written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, reuniting the Weta Workshop team behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson enlists his Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor from the King Kong remake, Christian Rivers, as director in his feature-length debut. The film is adapted from a 2001 novel by Philip Reeve, to which Jackson has had the rights since 2009, but has lived in Development Hell for seven years before finally going into production.
Well, it should have spent more time cooking in that Hell, because the movie is little more than a hodgepodge of clichés and ripoffs of better genre films and franchises. It also represents cinematic Steampunk at its nadir, as the dystopian future represented here makes no sense and looks fake as all get out.
Despite a relatively short (by Weta standards) run time of two hours, the film is oddly paced and doesn’t take nearly enough time to make its world-building come off as anything other than perfunctory. In this universe, the bulk of the world’s population was wiped out in the mid-22nd century by an event called “The 60-Minute War,” where every major city on Earth was wiped out by super nuclear weapons called “Medusa.” In the 1,000 years since, we’re told that the remnants of humanity gave rise to “predatory cities,” entire metropolitan areas on wheels that scour continental Europe, hunting down smaller cities and consuming them, an example of what they call “Municipal Darwinism.”
Okay, I have several questions. One, how were these massive cities built? Who decided to mount major cities (in the case of the main story, London) on wheels to make them mobile? Who thought this was a good idea, and what easily-duped populace would be on board for this? Why not just rebuild the cities? Hell, over the course of 1,000 years, how did society maintain such identity and tribal ties to even want London to exist in a new form? I tried to take the hunting of cities as some form of statement on imperialism, like this London being a futuristic example of “The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire,” but the consumed cities are just used for fuel to keep London moving, not a true appropriation of resources, especially since in the millennium since the war, the landscape looks capable of sustaining life and that crops could be grown again, so why not set down roots? The coolest thing about this movie is the visual of one city devouring another, but the metaphors are mixed at best and not one aspect of their existence makes a lick of sense, so any chance of enjoyment is wasted.
Anyway, the grand spectacle of provincial cannibalism basically only happens once in the first 10 minutes. The rest of the film centers on a woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar from the 2012 version of Anna Karenina), who as a child escaped her mother’s murder at the hands of Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who runs London’s museum and seeks “old tech” that he can use in the city’s quest to overrun Shan Guo (China), home of the Anti-Traction separatists who prefer staying in one place for more than a minute. After London consumes a small town, Hester attempts to assassinate Valentine, but is foiled by a young historian named Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan of Geostorm) who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After a cheesy CGI chase through the recently captured city, Tom’s reward is to be pushed out of London’s tail pipe by Valentine, forcing him to team up with Hester to make their way back to civilization and ultimately stop Valentine. Meanwhile, Hester is pursued be a sentient cyborg zombie named Shrike (Stephen Lang) and is recruited by Anti-Traction leader Anna Fang (Korean musician Jihae Kim), who likes to fly airships.
All the while we’re jostled back and forth between plot threads and thematic turns as the picture desperately tries to figure out what it wants to be. Is it an adventure? A revenge story? An effects-driven epic? Who the hell knows? It all changes on rotations no longer than five minutes at a clip, giving us no time to invest in the characters or really learn anything about them other than Hester through flashbacks. It also doesn’t help that the performances are pretty horrendous. Weaving is basically Elrond with a beard, speaking with the same monotone, slow-paced drawl, and Hilmar – who is Icelandic – cannot master English syntax and syllable emphasis to save her life. There’s a moment where she cocks her head towards Tom and says, “Shut up and run!” with the same passion and commitment that a porn star would use when saying, “Shut up and take off you pants!”
On just about every level this film is a disappointment. The CGI is mediocre at best, and that says a lot coming from an Oscar-winning VFX artist. Even the CGI mo-cap character Shrike, who is by far the most compelling character in the whole film, suffers from some second rate effects work, and it’s not even Andy Serkis doing the performance!
But even worse, in lieu of a cogent plot, this film is a mishmash of stolen ideas. Giant, impractical vehicles chasing each other? That’s just Mad Max. The “Shield Gate” that protects Shan Guo? All I see is the Black Gates of Mordor. Even the climactic battle to save the world gets temporarily put on hold while Tom – who always wanted to be an “aviator” – searches through coat racks for his own Han Solo jacket. Seriously, take Mad Max, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Howl’s Moving Castle, put them all in a bastardized pot and boil until all fun and excitement is drained from them, and you get this movie. Even Hester’s dramatic reveal of her facial scar left me laughing like the absurdity of Olivia Cooke’s birthmark in Ready Player One earlier this year.
This film is just a mess from beginning to end. There are hints of great ideas there that never get explored, in favor of Steampunk spectacle that is itself shelved for a by-the-numbers revenge plot. Even the film’s rare attempts at humor fall flat, as references to other Universal film properties and snack cakes fall flatter than a deflated balloon. I’m starting to wonder if Peter Jackson’s star has fallen beyond recovery at this point. After a promising indie career and after the massive triumph that was the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we’ve gotten a mo-cap monster remake nobody asked for, a second Middle Earth trilogy that should have been just one movie, and now this, even though his name’s not under the director title. I sincerely hope he takes a trip through the New Zealand countryside again and finds some new inspiration, because this? This movie could have been so much more than it was.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy Steampunk? Exactly how would a toaster survive 1,000 years after a nuclear holocaust? Let me know!