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Critics weigh in on Mortal Engines, but is the steampunk epic running on fumes?

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Dec 5, 2018, 5:15 PM EST

The rolling juggernaut that is Mortal Engines is almost here, and the critics are starting to weigh in. Adapted from Philip Reeve's book by Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh (the team behind The Lord of the Rings films) and directed by longtime Jackson protege Christian Rivers, the film tells the tale of young Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) in the age of the "great predator cities." In this alternate future, entire steampunk cities roll and race across the plains, hoping to devour smaller cities for their resources. 

The cast also includes Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Stephen Lang, and Colin Salmon. If successful, Jackson has said that this could be the first of many movies based in this universe — there are four books in the main series, and three prequels as well. Are the critics going to help it along, or do they want this city to stop rolling right here and right now? 

Well...let's just say that not everyone is rolling with joy for the new film. 

In The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy writes that the film " certainly lavish and expensive looking but never thoroughly locks in to capture the imagination or sweep you off to a new world where you particularly want to spend time. It's combat-heavy but not in an especially enthralling way..." He isn't so sure about commercial success in the U.S., but thinks foreign results could be alright. He mentions that Hilmar's Hester is "a resilient female lead." 


Variety critic Andrew Barker praises the opening city chase sequence, but goes on to write, "Unfortunately, it’s also the last time Mortal Engines displays anything recognizable as wit or dramatic invention, as the movie devolves from promising to unwieldy, then baffling, then exhausting, then finally unintentionally hysterical." He was also not impressed by the character of Shrike (Lang) and his relastionship with Hester. 

David Ehrlich of Indiewire writes that it "might not be a particularly good movie, but it’s a BIG one, and sometimes that can be even more important." He says that what the film does, possibly better than anything else, is make a case for being seen on as big a screen as possible — "Watching the film on a television or laptop would be like staring at a stereogram with one eye closed: You’d get the idea, but you wouldn’t be able to see it for yourself." He adds, "This is a movie about the potency of imbalanced proportions, the dominance of the large over the small, and the metastatic need for those in power to grow ever more powerful, and the best thing that can be said about rookie director Christian Rivers is that he suffuses that theme into the very soul of this gargantuan mess." 

USA Today's Brian Truitt gives it two and a half out of four stars and praises the action, though criticizes the storytelling. According to him, the mythology of the film might be better suited for an HBO series, and "not a mashed-up two hours and change." He adds, "As a result, the storytelling execution is just not totally there, a flat tire on the highway to being the next big thing." 

It's not all doom and gloom. Polygon's Karen Han writes, "Whenever Mortal Engines focuses on the idiosyncrasies of its universe, it’s magnificent. The first 20 minutes, which showcase city chases that play like Mad Max: Fury Road on shrooms, are near perfect. The sheer sense of scale that director Christian Rivers is able to invoke is glorious." She is critical of the storytelling however, though notes that it is a cut above such series as Divergent and The Maze Runner. She also has praise for Weaving and the "effortless cool" of Jihae's Anna Fang. 

William Bibbiani of The Wrap raves about the movie, writing that it starts with "one of the most breathtaking action sequences in recent memory, at once wholly unbelievable and yet brought to life with thrilling detail." He adds, "It’s a high standard to set for the rest of Mortal Engines, based on the novel by Philip Reeve, but the film manages to keep that sense of wonder alive for over two hours. You’ll recognize some of the storytelling beats, but you’ve never seen a live-action world quite like this." He also praises the Lang/CGI creation of Shrike, writing, "his story eventually unveils more morbidity and sadness than most blockbusters even attempt." 

Perhaps one of Bibbiani's more prophetic thoughts is the following, writing that the film is "the kind of bonkers that’s often scoffed at during an initial release, only to earn a legion of fans later, who can’t understand why nobody took a chance on the film when it first came out."

Mortal Engines rolls into our lives on December 13.