Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic world where cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive, two people meet in London and try to stop a conspiracy.
Stars: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Frankie Adams, Colin Salmon, Stephen Lang
Director: Christian Rivers
Running Length: 128 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: In my review of the recently released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse I bemoaned the turgid same-ness that is starting to torpedo genre films. With most superhero movies following the same mold, it takes an outside of the box approach to make the film truly memorable and one that will keep it in your memory long after you leave theater. The same rule applies to adaptations of YA novels. While the Harry Potter films kicked off the current generation of lucrative franchise pictures based on popular novels for young adults, the genre really took off with the success (and superiority) of movies that were made out of The Hunger Games series. With many imitators along the way (Divergent, The Maze Runner, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), nothing has met the success or longevity of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games films and sadly the latest entry Mortal Engines joins that list of non-starters.
After a devastating event that caused much of the world to become unstable and uninhabitable, mankind has taken to living in cities on wheels that routinely swallow up smaller communities and use their resources for fuel. The opening of Mortal Engines plunges us right into such a hunt, when the mobile city of London goes after a tiny salt mining town that’s no match for the former UK’s massive (and massively impressive) super metropolis. It’s a jarring start to the movie and, without much context, leaves audiences to find their own bearing in a sea of character names and made-up terms. It actually feels like the opening of a second or third film in an already established series, which has the effect of keeping the viewer at an outsider’s arm’s length from the outset.
On the confiscated town is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, Anna Karenina, an Icelandic actress playing American not totally succeeding in losing her Nordic accent), a scarred young woman that has hoped for exactly this outcome. She wants to gain access to London because that’s where Thaddeus Valentine is. Valentine (Hugo Weaving, The Dressmaker) and Hester’s mother had a complicated history and Hester has come to settle a longstanding score. When ambitious Londoner and historian Tom (Robert Sheehan) intercepts her attempt to assassinate Valentine only to then find himself on the run with Hester, the two are soon at the center of a plot that threatens any city in Valentine’s path. At the same time, a resurrected creature (voiced by Stephen Lang, Don’t Breathe) relentlessly pursues Hester with his own agenda that Valentine uses to his larger advantage.
Based on the first of four novels in author Phillip Reeve’s bleak version of the future, Mortal Engines has been adapted for the screen and produced by Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). It’s interesting to note that while Jackson wrote the script, produced the film, and had his Oscar-winning special effects WETA workshop design the impressive visuals, he left the directing duties to first-timer Christian Rivers, his long-time story boarder and protégé. Rivers is no Jackson, though, and while his work assembling a visually appealing movie is impressive there is little in the way of emotional heft to make the film more than just an excuse for special effects and rousing soundtrack cues.
The movie also has a strong sense of post-production tinkering. Why else would characters that seem to be of greater importance vanish for long stretches of time only to return when necessary or not at all? Valentine has a spunky daughter (Leila George) that feels like she’s getting her own B-storyline but aside from a few quick intercuts of her in London while Hester and Tom are dodging steampunk kidnappers (in a nicely bizarre nod to a New Zealand-y Mad Max: Fury Road) she’s largely absent from the proceedings. Then there’s a band of outlaws led by Anna Fang (Jihae, delivering her lines with dramatically committed sincerity) set to protect Hester who are barely-there sketches of your standard rouge gallery of grunts.
Though it boasts an impressive team behind the scenes, Mortal Engines doesn’t have enough gas to make much of a fire.