Despite an impeccable cast and an intriguing premise, “Mortal Engines” looks likely to follow in the tracks of “His Dark Materials” adaptation “The Golden Compass” and fail to thrive in the cinematic environment. It’s a shame, too, but it underlines the difficulties faced when adapting epic fantasy book series to the cinema, especially in the era of TV streaming.
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland where city-states roam the land, scavenging and consuming each other to survive, London is a fearsome apex predator but Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) plots for more. He has his eyes on The Wall and the riches of the Anti-Traction League which lie beyond and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Meanwhile, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmer) has plotted and schemed her way onto London with only one aim: kill Valentine and avenge her mother’s murder.
It’s a handsome and well-realised adaptation of the book, with gorgeous steampunk visuals and solid performances from all involved but in the process of adapting the novel to a reasonably lean (these days) two-hour movie, much of the novel’s insightful satire and social commentary has been lost. The movie finds itself having to hurry through the story from one plot point or set piece to the next one that it never gets the chance to really breathe before it rushes forward to its next target.
It’s a thrilling ride, but the texture and depth of the tale are sacrificed for cinematic expediency. The world-building is still there if you’ve an eye and ear for it, but it’s far too dependent on the audience being familiar with the books to work on its own merits. The subtextual critique of unsustainable consumption and the indictment of Darwinian economic exploitation and the class system which rigidly reinforces the inequities necessary for its own survival are barely touched on in the course of the film and characters which are hugely significant to the overall story, such as Shrike (Stephen Lang) are reduced to little more than a cameo boogeyman.
Without this narrative heft, it can be a little too easy to dismiss this as a throwaway steampunk fantasy, a goofy tale of a Big Trak city but the series really opens out after the first book and becomes so much more. It looks unlikely that we’ll get to see any more of this story on the big screen and it may be some time before its picked up by one of the streaming services to be given the long-form TV series treatment it needs to reach its full potential and the audience it deserves. In the meantime, read the books. I promise you won’t be disappointed.