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Movie Review

London's on the move.

No, not in some sort of metaphorical, cultural, forward-thinking sort of way: It's literally moving—gallivanting through the ruins of Europe like a colossal, wildly overpopulated RV.

Lots of cities trawl through the ruins of Eurasia these days, circa the year 3,100 or so. Ever since the 60-Minute War nearly obliterated all of humankind, mobile cities have been all the rage.

Why? Why would someone say, "You know what this metropolis needs? Wheels." Earthquakes, of course. The cataclysm made the world unstable for a time, and everyone knows the safest place to be in an earthquake is in a gigantic moving vehicle.

So the remnants of humanity stuck the remnants of their cities on some seriously oversized caterpillar tracks. And while terra firma has calmed down somewhat lately, folks living in communities like London never thought to anchor themselves back into solid bedrock. And can you blame them? They can see the world without ever leaving home. Literally.

These movable cities have a downside, of course: They require a ludicrous amount of fuel, and they don't run on ethanol. So they chase down other, smaller communities and ingest their resources—which seems like a vicious cycle. We need to move to gobble up other cities so that we can keep moving. But never mind. The system has, at least, a catchy label: Municipal Darwinism. Cities must eat … or be eaten.

But former archeologist and current London darling Thaddeus Valentine knows that, eventually, you run out of cities. So in the ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral—located at the very tippy top of rolling London—he works on a mysterious technological solution to all their problems.

Tom Natsworthy has lived in London all his life. Now a flunky for the London Museum, he rescues historical items from captured cities before the whole works get ingested. He saves an old toaster here, a cracked iPhone there, and sometimes he even comes across something truly remarkable—a bit of "old tech" that has some relation to the doomsday weapons of the past.

One memorable afternoon, he runs into the great Thaddeus Valentine as a city's being disassembled, and good thing, too. Before Tom's done groveling, Valentine's attacked by a strange, masked woman. Tom saves Valentine and chases the woman through the bowels of London. And when she tries to make a ludicrously chancy leap, Tom tries to save her life, too—grabbing her before she falls to either freedom or death.

The girl (named Hester Shaw, we learn later) is not pleased. She hurriedly tells Tom that Valentine murdered her mother, and that their previous encounter had been her only chance for revenge. Then she falls and is gone.

When Valentine shows up, he expresses gratitude to Tom for saving him. But when Tom lets slip that she accused Valentine of murder, Valentine's face changes.

"I'm sorry you had to hear that, Tom," he says. And he pushes Tom off the ledge, into the gaping hole that the girl fell through before—one that leads to the tracked, blighted land underneath the rolling communities.

Tom and Hester survive the fall. But if whole cities can be gobbled up whole in this crazy world, what chance do two small people have?

Positive Elements

Tom seems like a nice chap, saving people as he does. And when Hester is injured (which, admittedly, is Tom's fault), he refuses to leave her to save his own skin. He's a loyal friend, even in the face of serious danger.

Hester's been on her own for a good long while before she meets Tom, and she's more reluctant to throw her lot in with him. But the two grow evermore fond of each other, and soon neither will leave the other—no matter what sort of scrape they land in.

They're not the only ones who show a heart for self-sacrifice, though. Dozens of others risk their lives—and sometimes give them—for what they believe to be a better cause. When the dust settles, a few characters face their former rivals and extend a hand of help and friendship. And we learn that a very young Hester had some help surviving as a child from an unexpected hero.

Spiritual Content

As mentioned, St. Paul's Cathedral stands on the literal pinnacle of London. While it now serves as a sort of laboratory, it's still repeatedly referred to as a church. (When someone gets set to invade the place, in fact, she quips that she's late for it.) And when one man shows a secret passage to St. Paul's to a couple of infiltrators, he warns them to be careful. "Whatever it is they are doing in that church has nothing to do with God."

One of London's most prized exhibits is that of some "American deities"—which turn out to be statues of oversized Minions from the Despicable Me movies.

We learn that the weapons system that brought about the 60-Minute War was called Medusa, obviously a reference to a creature from Greek mythology. We see an image of the original Medusa carved on a wall surrounded by candles, shrine-like, and someone appears to be praying to it.

Hester is being pursued by a robot-like thing called Shrike: He's referred to as one of the "Resurrected," the last of what was called the "Lazarus Brigade." It's said that "hell" has been unleashed when a massive weapon is fired.

Sexual Content

Spoiler warning: Tom and Hester fall in love eventually, but they never have much time to do anything other than touch hands. Anna Fang, the fearsome leader of London's opposition, exchanges lovestruck glances with her apparent significant other, Captain Khora.

Violent Content

Teen-oriented dystopias never embrace pacifism, for some reason. Even as the world of Mortal Engines is still recovering from a cataclysmic war, the plot propels us straight into another one.

Massive blasts from a doomsday weapon target a city and its surrounding fortifications and, presumably, obliterate many of its inhabitants. We see walls and buildings collapse; flying machines disintegrate, tossed into the air by aftershocks.

A floating city is nearly incinerated (not helped, I'd imagine, by its presumably hydrogen-filled balloons). People plummet from said city to the ground below, as well as riding flaming wreckage to terra firma.

Combatants fight frenetically with each other, getting shot, stabbed, hit, kicked, sliced and strangled while engaged in melees. When someone gets shot in the face, we see a bit of his hair (or wig) fly up in the air. Whole groups of people are mowed down by gunfire. Flying craft are shot from the sky and blown up; they also engage in kamikaze-like feats of derring-do.

Hester and Tom land in a slave market, and a man bids for Hester in order to make her into sausage. On the auction block, a man seems ready to bash someone's head in before he gets an acceptable bid at the last second. Hester bears a wicked-looking scar across her face—an injury she received (and we see her receive) when she was just 8 years old. Vicious harpoons spear both man and moving city. Someone shoots the leg off a water-bound walking prison, sending the prison (and presumably everyone in it) to the briny deep.

Shrike is unquestionably the movie's most frightening character: This robot-like being looks part zombie, and he seems unstoppable—tromping after his intended target with immortal, terrifying resolve. We first meet him after he's been imprisoned, and we learn that he obliterated nearly an entire city and killed a dozen men sent specifically to catch him.

Crude or Profane Language

We hear one use of "b--tard," one "d--n", three uses of "h---" and three uses of the British profanity "bloody." We also hear misuses of God's name about four times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

None.

Other Negative Elements

Some characters lie and backstab.

Conclusion

Mortal Engines might be the most telling example of moviemaking in the early 21st century: visually spectacular, dispiritingly dark, narratively vacuous and, of course, a suitable launch point for a hoped-for franchise.

Mortal Engines is dumb, sure, but it's a fun sort of dumb. The rumbling cities we see here don't make a lick o' sense on any level—but man, they look pretty sweet. The storyline deviates significantly from Philip Reeve's original children's novel and rumbles into a predictable, paint-by-numbers plot with holes big enough to drive a city through. But the thing grinds forward as assuredly and inexorably as London itself. It's a carnival ride of a movie: It might not have a lot of depth, but it flings you around rather pleasantly.

The makers (many of whom brought The Lord of the Rings to the screen, including screenplay co-writer Peter Jackson) kept the content relatively restrained, too, in keeping with the book's original audience. We hear very little language, and sexual content is almost nonexistent.

If I have a concern, it's that this dystopian tale could've been a little more whimsical and a little less grim—more Wizard of Oz and less Mad Max. Mortal Engines can be violent, frightening and even grotesque in places. Shrike is the stuff of many a child's nightmare, and his moving lair might make you give up dolls forever.

Mortal Engines won't become an immortal favorite of many, but it is an imaginative romp, if you can navigate our caveats. It, like London, can be quite the ride—if you can avoid the mud.

Sacrificing for the right things is an important concept if your world is on the move or not. For ideas on how to develop a sacrificial attitude in your children, check out these resources:

Teaching Children About Self-Denial

Nurturing a Servant's Heart in Kids

How to Encourage Your Kids to Do What's Right

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw; Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy; Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine; Jihae as Anna Fang; Ronan Raftery as Bevis Pod; Leila George as Katherine Valentine; Patrick Malahide as Magnus Crome; Stephen Lang as Shrike; Colin Salmon as Chudleigh Pomeroy

Director

Christian Rivers ( )

Distributor

Universal Pictures

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

December 14, 2018

On Video

March 12, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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