I’m going to get some static from certain people for saying this, but this is one of my favorite movies of the year. Not one of the best, not by a long shot, but absolutely the most fun I had in a theater. Mortal Engines is essentially a nonstop movie-quoting machine, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Its references come fast and often, remixing tropes, characters, plots, dialogue and even set designs from just about every modern sci-fi and post-apocalyptic story of the last few decades, even moving beyond that scope to encompass enough other pieces of film history to make the case that the filmmakers are definitely onto something.
Whereas this year’s pitiful Ready Player One threw all of its inspirations and Easter eggs onto the screen and expected that the simple notion of recognizability was enough to stand in for having a plot or a point, Mortal Engines revels in its countless points of origin and turns them into something truly original. And it does it all while allowing its obscure-to-the-point-of-impenetrable world-building to simply be, tossing in hints as to what it all really means while playing it cool and admitting that, eh, it’s actually not even all that important. This is what life is like a thousand years in the future. Weird doesn’t even begin to describe it.
There are the standard script problems inherent to even the best of the genre, but even those are buried under the sheer colossal weight of what’s on screen. I barely think I could handle watching something like this in 3D. And the film’s most glaring fault is trying to make me believe anyone, no matter what century they’re living in, could look at Hugo Weaving and not guess that he’s probably the most evil person in any given room.
Mortal Engines plays almost like a bridge between the kid-friendly and more adult-focused works of Terry Gilliam, the Wachowskis, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Hayao Miyazaki. It steals from the greats and gets away with it because it wants you to notice and it wants you to care. And like all great acts of cinematic theft, it works whether you actually notice all that or not. There are cloud cities, robot zombies, evil governments, ancient societies, steampunk architecture, even a quick and bizarre cameo from those hideous yellow Temazepam demons, The Minions. As I said: weird. Having been unceremoniously dumped right into Spider-Man and Aquaman season, the movie will come and go quickly. I have no idea what a fan of the book might think of the film, but as a movie fan, it’s the best and most surprising early Christmas present I could have hoped for.