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The YA genre has been in an unavoidably rough slump. With so many franchises attempting to get off the ground, and failing right out the gate, seeing a film like Mortal Engines come along initially feels like less of a thrill and more like a chore. But in some cases, something new and pretty exciting comes along; and while this isn't a perfect film, it's a reinvigorating entry into the canon of teen-centric adventure stories, with a strong visual and thematic language that only lacks a slight reinforcement.
Mortal Engines flashes forward into a far flung future, where a 60-minute war irrevocably changed the Earth. Humanity has survived in either mobile cities, or stationary settlements, with London being one of the largest threats of all. What starts as an assassination attempt on one of London's most influential people (Hugo Weaving), turns into a quest led by two young adults (Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan) to stop a chain of events that could ravage the course of human history yet again.
Throughout the entirety of Mortal Engines, there's a restless energy that helps keep the film moving from point to point. This momentum is a double-edged sword when it comes to the world-building going on, because on one hand, the quick pace of the barely over two hour long film does keep things from getting stale. And yet, the negative side is with a running time so short, there are whole characters that are barely introduced by name, and some who act more like set dressing than actual thematic pawns.
Even the characters that do get front and center attention, like the central pair of Hera Hilmar's Hester and Robert Sheehan's Tom, feel a bit robbed by the abundance of energy Mortal Engines possesses. It's still not hard to root for our heroes to succeed, but it'd be nice if we had a little more incentive and information to help inform what they're fighting for. Though series outsiders could imagine that in future installments we'll get to see more out of these characters.
Interestingly enough, Mortal Engines has Peter Jackson in its corner, as he produced the film and co-wrote its screenplay with his Lord of the Rings co-writers, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens. So for the forces behind such a detailed adaptation to be criticized of moving too fast on a story is a rather interesting paradox. But even at this accelerated pace, you can feel their love for the world, and the attention to setting up a strong foundation for future events, without it being so on the nose.
Unlike most YA franchises that have banked their fortunes on frontloading their first film with so much sequel bait, Mortal Engines feels like a film that is happily self-contained in one installment. While there's certainly a promise of Phillip Reeve's literary quartet continuing on, director Christian Rivers' film doesn't jab its audience with a bunch of loose threads that scream to be continued in the next installment. It's a complete, contained narrative that would be fine as its own one-off entry.
Perhaps Mortal Engines' strongest card in its deck of tricks is, again, its world building. The film acts as a sort of mash-up of typical dystopian YA, with shades of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, George Miller's Mad Max franchise, and even a little bit of The Hunger Games thrown in for good measure. It's this cocktail that helps distance Rivers' film from a typical blockbuster aimed at teens, as it isn't totally obsessed with the usual stereotypical tropes of the genre. A love triangle is only barely alluded to in this film, and the solution seems to be just as easily presented, so Mortal Engines is free to play around with the more interesting elements of its society. It just so happens the people central to the story are youngsters.
Mortal Engines is an exciting surprise when it comes to a cottage industry that's been trying to get back on its feet since Harry Potter and Twilight made it a household name. While this isn't quite at the level of either of those series, at least in terms of fandom and popularity, it's probably the strongest youth based literary adaptation we've seen in years. Not only does it make for an exciting thrill ride, but it also gives its audience hope that maybe not all YA franchises are alike.
Above all else, Mortal Engines does what any good opener to a potential franchise should do: it baits the hook for the continuing adventures just right, and gives you enough information about its world to want to see more. Here's hoping we do get to hear the rest of the story, as this engine has built up an impressive head of steam.