A thousand years after civilisation was destroyed due to a mysterious war, cities on wheels consume each other for resources.

On the surface, Mortal Engines comprises a fairly standard science fiction story with typical Young Adult fiction and steampunk tropes; with spectacular visuals and just enough originality to make it enjoyable – but not much else.

Most of the reviews seem to suggest that this is all there is to it. However, the most enjoyable aspect of the film is subtext – metaphors and underpinning themes which make the narrative more complex and interesting than most Hollywood films dare to attempt. It also has the confidence not to beat the viewer over the head with them, simply allowing ideas about colonialism, war, and failing to learn from history to exist without trying too hard to shove them in the audience’s face. The film has a lot to say about a great number of interesting topics, and does so in unexpected and refreshing ways.

Take, for example, the visuals of London. It would have been very easy to indulge the Victorian kitsch in a way that simply emulated a look; but everything from the costumes to the set design gives it a reflection of the ills of Victorian society (replete with staggering inequality and an underclass of working people), alongside a genuinely interesting but not too overt metaphor for colonialism.

While it is true that superficially the plot is a typical hero’s journey, it is one which has more depth and exploration of the underlying ideas behind what that could mean. Using tropes in general is not an inherently bad thing, especially not when done well, as they are here. They serve as shorthand for larger ideas and commentary in a way which can allow a good story to come through without the need to over-explain itself to the audience, and that is how Mortal Engines handles it.

One of the chief strengths which also greatly aids the immersion in this world is the strength of performances. Each actor thoroughly embodies their character, even characters with very little screen time, and were given the space by director Christian Rivers (making his directorial debut) to do so. There is a so much plot that, in the wrong hands, it could have been difficult to follow; but Rivers deftly manages to give just enough to make it engaging rather than overwhelming.

5 cogs out of 5

Image: Movie DB

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