As a running joke in the books, real world pop culture relics show up thoroughly misunderstood in the new film adaptation of the Mortal Engines series. This seems to have happened between book and movie.
I’m glad I watched this film. There’s undeniable joy in seeing so much care put into the translating the aesthetics of the original book onto the screen. It’s rare I find a film worth the IMAX screen but this one was, with 3D that created a gorgeous layered effect. There’s love put into all the small details (I could geek out for hours about the design of London as a moving city).
Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore the major case where it doesn’t live up to the look of the books: Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) simply isn’t sufficiently disfigured, a problem that goes beyond aesthetics. Plus, there’s the repeated pattern of not embracing the book’s darkness. Compare book Hester, not just in appearance but also personality, to the character as portrayed by Hera Hilmar. Not to say that Hera does a bad job at portraying a likable character, only her portrayal serves a different purpose.
Similarly, Tom (Robert Sheehan) isn’t the Tom I grew up with. In the translation to a cinematic pace, we lose the time Tom had to harden from naively kind to more experienced and kind. At the same time, Hester softened ever so slightly. Instead we have a character who is proactive from the start leaving no room for an arc of any kind. This is also an issue with Tom and Hester’s relationship, leaving it completely flat. Neither are conventional leads as they aren’t heroic, which is why they wouldn’t have fit in this film’s need for active and attractive characters.
I’d be naive to assume the entirety of the books would be able to make it to the screen. But the change in tone is harder to understand. As well as compressing the polt, a lot of the moral complexity is squeezed out. We go from a book with three primary villains, each wrong, but if you squint you can sort of see where they’re coming from. To a single antagonist who loses his nuance, the demotion of Magnus Chrome (Patrick Malahide) from villain to bit player is especially strange.
This creates a problem where all evil comes from Valentine (Leila George); it’s no longer about a broken and wasteful system driving people. Instead we have a pantomime villain lacking in self-reflection, just as the film is willing to occupy the setting without commenting on it. Unlike the book, where characters were allowed to debate each other and be more flawed.
This comes to a head in the conclusion, which feels the most disconnected from both the books and the setting with a solution that isn’t earned. Major changes to plot feel like concessions to force a story into a 12A rating that it doesn’t fit.
What we’re left with a fun but fundamentally flawed film that doesn’t feel like Mortal Engines despite how well it plays the part visually.