Mortal Engines was like the YA book series with the best politics. Maybe it was tied with A Series of Unfortunate Events, but those books didn’t go too hard with praxis. These were books that were fervently anti-capitalist and anti-nationalist, written from a clearly defined Anarcho-Communist perspective. Sure, the conceit of autonomous, mobile city states is maybe a big hurdle to overcome — but to reflect a societal condition as fucked as late-capitalism takes some doing.
When I think of the giant, unknowable, monolithic entities that shape our lives to best fuel their acquisition of capital, there is no difference between the London portrayed in Phillip Reeve’s novel and say your Googles, or Amazons. All turning further into corruption and abuse of labour in order to extract the last remaining worth in a world running out of their precious fuel. It is not enough for them to subsist, the marketplace will only be finally predictable once all competition has been eliminated.
It seems like when Peter Jackson and his WingNut films took to the material all of this flew straight on over their heads like so many steampunk dirigibles. In this film Mother London is just that, shiny and gleaming. It does not enslave and torture those that it consumes, instead they are promised a good life and guaranteed employment. You’ll have seen in the trailer the image of London chasing after the smaller settlement, yeah this bit follows that scene. This proclamation is offered as a rebuke to some sort of border-guard customs-man being a little too rough to those whose lives have just been destroyed.
The border-guard customs-man is promptly arrested by the jackbooted militarised police force and from then on everything continues in an orderly fashion. This doesn’t seem to be a believable turn of events. It is a lovely fantasy, to be sure, but is not really a healthy one for us to be repeating in these times. The city is shiny and glimmering and full of well dressed people who cheer merrily from the rooftops. There is one very ham fisted exchange early on when they try to raise the spectre of class consciousness, but honestly that moment is forgotten long before the film on the whole forgets about the two characters who share it.
Seriously, it’s kinda a wreck. They’re around during a fairly pivotal scene, witnessing something they shouldn’t. They sneak away to avoid capture and then disappear entirely, it’s fucking brazen. Anyway, to briefly explain: prey is scarce on the wastes and London starts the film heading east with a ‘mysterious’ intent which is immediately discernible from the leaden way the first full five minutes of exposition thuds at our feet. Tom (Robert Sheehan, the Misfits guy) is a historian specialising in old world tech who is witness to an assassination attempt on the city’s leading light Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving).
In trying to apprehend her they both end up off the city, stranded in the wastes, and reliant on each other to survive. There’s also a half-baked mystery subplot that takes place on and around London itself, some business with a cyborg terminator and, even though there’s a whole bunch of stuff simplified or plain cut from the book, it feels overstuffed. Everything is momentum, the driving plot resisting any chance to let us relax and chill with the characters. Even their bonding and emotional breakthroughs feel rigorously scheduled, hurried along quickly as possible in order to not interrupt the five things that needs to happen in the next ten minutes.
Just about the cruellest side effect of this is that we get so little time to gaze at this world. Like the production design is by and large something absolutely gorgeous. There’s times where I’d argue too much so (the airship of a wanted pirate terrorist has no business being so goddamned clean for example) but when they arrive at this enormous airborne marketplace I’d have appreciated some time to wander. Instead our leads are hastily shuffled into a room where we’re introduced to five more characters who have a very important conversation about things. Then, everything catches on fire and they all have to leave.
I just wanted to spend some time in the flying city. Isn’t that the entire point of making a movie? Anyway, after that the entire final act is pretty much rewritten to turn it into some sorta Star Wars riff. You know, the end of the book is actually pretty interesting. The heroes don’t really save the day, everything would have happened pretty much the same if they hadn’t been there. It’s determinedly bleak in the way it drives home the theme that the ideology of continuous growth is ultimately a self-destructive one.
The end here is fairly boring. The good guy gets to shoot the bad guy. Justice prevails and everyone gets to bask in the warm glow of decency. See how decent everyone is now that there’s no bad guy? Wouldn’t the world be better if everyone could just get along? It’s banal, characterless and — while not the full on garbage that it could have been — eminently forgettable.
I’m not gonna pretend to be not disappointed, though I set my expectations low back when Jackson was originally slated to direct. The book means a lot to me, it’s where I got my name: there was a part of thirteen year old me that felt a kinship with the disfigured girl who feels her circumstances make her distinctly unworthy of love and styled a life of self-sufficiency to survive.
In the film she’s a pretty girl, who is given precious little to actually do outside of fall in love with a boy she doesn’t really have much chemistry with. My version would have been better.
Mortal Engines is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures