So over the weekend I decided to watch Mortal Engines, a Peter Jackson adaptation of a book series by the same name written by Philip Reeves. If you’re not familiar with it (and if box office totals are anything to go by, you probably aren’t) it’s a young adult dystopian book series where the books came out a bit too early to catch that particular craze and the movie came out long after it had pretty much run its course.
Now, I’ve said before that a good idea doesn’t matter – that execution is everything. I mention this because I guarantee you as soon as I tell you the premise of the book, you’re going to want to read and or see this particular story.
Mortal Engines takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where an unspecified “Sixty minute War” was fought with weapons of unimaginable destruction. In the wake of this apocalyptic conflict, Earth was in constant chaos as the very ground was unstable. To survive, humanity took their cities and turned them into mobile fortresses called traction cities that drive across the landscape and hunt each other in a practice known as Municipal Darwinism.
That’s right, it’s an entire book series about giant, predatory, mobile cities. One of the coolest and most unique premises I’ve heard in ages, a logical evolution of the “incredibly cool car” genre of post-apocalyptic fiction. If Ideas were the most important part of a story, Mortal Engines would be as well known as Harry Potter.
Unfortunately, a good idea is only about 10% of storytelling, and while the idea was enough to get me to read all eight books of the series and watch the movie because I was desperately hoping that at some point either the author or the director would do something interesting with the series…they don’t. Idea is great. Execution is bland at best.
“Bland at best” is probably my overall three-word-review of both the book series and the movie. If you want to know more of my thought, read on – just understand that going forward, there will be spoilers.
So the plot of the first book and the movie – which I’m just going to refer to as the movie from here on out – follows Tom Natsworthy, the most generic white-bread protagonist I’ve ever personally encountered, a historian on the very predatory town of London that desperately dreams of being an airship captain. He has no discernable personality besides “being British,” and he is very British at that.
Tom is joined by Hester Shaw, a young woman with a scarred face who has more of a personality than Tom by virtue of having a single personality trait and driving motivation. Unfortunately, but the personality trait and the driving motivation are “traumatized.” That’s it, that’s her entire character. She has a scar on her face that – in the grand tradition of Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire and Artemis from Ready Player One – is described in the book as being horribly disfiguring, but in the live action adaptation does nothing to mar her overall attractiveness.
It’s a good thing this movie never is going to get sequels because in the later books of the series Hester’s one personality train shifts from being traumatized to being self-conscious about being ugly, and that would just ring hollow as hell. (Also, here we have a woman who goes from being traumatized as her only personality trait – something I might have mentioned annoys me – to having her only personality trait revolving around her physical appearance which…manages to be worse. Awesome.)
The story that then unfolds is a paint-by-numbers milieu story. Hester is being pursued by an undead terminator hybrid that she promised to let kill and reanimate her because it would mean she’d have no more feelings anymore, Hester and Tom are rescued from slavers by the leader of a resistance group that just showed up, out of nowhere, when they were being put up to auction, and pretty much every element of the plot just serves to move the characters to a new unique location to show off the worldbuilding. That can be done well – you could make a very solid argument that a significant amount of genre fiction utilizes this structure – but for it to work you need interesting characters to attach the plot too.
The problem, as I mentioned in the beginning, is this story has some of the coolest ideas I’ve encountered in fiction in ages, but no idea what to do with it. The majority of the story actually takes place on airships or in a stationary location that London is currently menacing as part of an evil plan by the mustache-twirling villain Thaddeus Valentine to…find new lands to plunder because the municipal Darwinism system is breaking down due to a lack of cities to hunt.
That’s right. You have something as cool as “mobile cities that hunt and eat each other,” and decide to set a story in the days when that is becoming incredibly infrequent. I just…why would you do that? Why would you take the idea “cities are hunting each other” and decide “so we’re gonna limit our use of that as much as possible.”
This could have been salvaged by interesting or likable characters, but as established, or heroes are bland and one dimensional and our villain is unbearably evil. The nominal good guys – known as the Anti-Traction League – are given even less depth than our main characters to the point where the movie forgets to explain why they are opposed to Municipal Darwinism in the first place. They’re obviously supposed to be who we’re rooting for, but because the movie and book avoid developing the Traction Cities it’s hard to understand why we should be rooting for them, up until the very end where the bad guy activates the obligatory super weapon that threatens to Alderann their safe place.
The only character that undergoes an interesting arc is Valentines’ daughter, Katherine, who slowly comes to the realization that her privileged life had kept her from the horrors of the society that sustains her and that her father is actually pretty much pure evil. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really give her anything to do besides open the door so generic her Tom can shoot London’s engines and stop it from advancing further. However, Katherine was three dimensional and grew and changed and on the basis of that alone should have been the protagonist of the story.
Oh, and also, the movie is aggressively anti-technology, to a degree that makes its central message scream “technology is bad!” with the subtlety of a cat near an empty food bowl. The world was destroyed by fancy WMDs that use the word quantum a lot, the bad guys are the ones that drive around the awesome mechanized cities, Valentine’s plan revolves around resurrecting one of those WMDs, the undead Terminator that chases Hesta around is, well, a terminator…nothing good comes technology in this world, it seems. Except for airships. So…technology is bad unless it lets us fly?
This story is a mess.
While setting up this review, I read the book’s Wikipedia page and came across this interesting tidbit: “The original drafts were intended to be an adult novel but after several rejections, Scholastic said they might be interested in Mortal Engines as a children’s story. In the refactoring the story was simplified, removing several characters and much content such as the city politics that Reeve thought would not be interesting to children.” I dearly wish we lived in a universe that had gotten those original drafts, because I get the distinct impression that pretty much everything that would have made this story pop was cut out to make it more suitable for children, because this was published in 2002, when publishers were still overly dumbing down content for young audiences.
Not that they’ve stopped doing that, but more and more publishers are coming to the realization that books targeted at young adults don’t need to be overly simplistic.
In the end, it comes down to what I said before – ideas are great, and having a good idea can really draw interest into a work, but with bland and uninspired execution, you’re shouldn’t be surprised if readers are underwhelmed.
Does the idea of gods having a war on modern Earth and fighting by manipulating physics sound like a good one to you? Why not get your free copy of Rumors and let me know how I handled the execution!