For a project that Peter Jackson spent nearly a decade shepherding to the screen, Mortal Engines is surprisingly generic, merely the latest stillborn attempt to turn a series of popular young-adult fantasy novels into a blockbuster film franchise.
Fans of Jackson's acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy might have hoped he would bring that same magic to Philip Reeve's 2001 novel, but Jackson opted not to direct, and instead handed the reins to longtime collaborator Christian Rivers. Although Jackson remained as a producer and co-writer, whatever passion he had for Reeve’s work was apparently lost somewhere along the way.
Rivers draws upon his extensive visual effects background to give Mortal Engines, his feature directorial debut, a detailed and polished look. However, there’s very little beneath the surface. Like too many YA adaptations, Mortal Engines casts a couple of bland, charisma-free young actors as its leads: Hera Hilmar, as the mysterious, scarred rebel Hester Shaw, and Robert Sheehan, as the wide-eyed young historian/pilot Tom Natsworthy, are equally forgettable in their efforts to carry the movie. They also display no chemistry, making the requisite YA romance a non-starter.
In the distant future, following a catastrophic conflict known as the Sixty Minute War, Earth’s geography has completely shifted, and what’s left of humanity lives in enormous mobile cities that roam the landscape, battling each other for resources. In the massive, roving version of London, Tom works as an apprentice at the history museum, where he collects ancient technology that's been lost in the movie’s vaguely steampunk world. When London takes over a small, mobile mining city, Hester sneaks onboard so that she can attack Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a civic leader in charge of a mysterious new energy project.
Tom, who seems to have a thing for Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George), stops Hester from killing Valentine, and for his trouble he is dumped out of London along with her. While the obviously evil Valentine goes about his obviously evil (but narratively obtuse) plan, Tom and Hester trade pointed barbs on their way to teaming up with this movie’s version of the Rebel Alliance, led by the improbably fashionable Anna Fang, played by musician and artist Jihae as if she’s in the middle of a conceptual art project.
In addition to Valentine and his minions -- not to be confused with the actual Minions, which make one of cinema’s unlikeliest cameos -- Tom and Hester are pursued by Shrike (Stephen Lang), a sort of zombie-cyborg called a Stalker, who has become obsessed with Hester. The entire Shrike subplot is laughably misguided and absurdly hokey (eventually involving someone’s life being saved by the power of love), not to mention almost wholly irrelevant to the overall story, serving only to delay the eventual final confrontation with Valentine.
That confrontation hinges on the quest for a doohickey that can stop an ancient doomsday weapon, although Valentine’s goals and motivations related to that weapon are not very well-defined. Despite its near-constant expository dialogue, Mortal Engines rarely makes much sense, and the world-building falls apart if you think too hard about it. The characters are so thinly sketched that it’s difficult to care about what happens to them, and the heroes’ goals are often just as vague as the villains’.
The screenplay, by Jackson and his regular collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, is filled with sci-fi and fantasy clichés, and multiple climactic moments borrow so heavily from the original Star Wars trilogy that Lucasfilm might want to consider legal action. There’s constant motion in the chaotic jumble of a plot, but almost no sense of urgency, and a number of seemingly important characters disappear for long stretches with no discernible effect on the narrative.
The movie is at least frequently gorgeous to look at, although there’s a certain antiseptic quality to the grimy Victorian-style cities that should feel a little more lived-in. And while the effects are generally top-notch, there are moments when they falter, as if the artists forgot to fill in a few frames or one distant portion of the screen. Jackson’s best work always balanced breathtaking spectacle with rich storytelling, but Rivers can only get the spectacle part right, and even that doesn’t always work. The action set pieces are perfectly fine, but they’re not particularly creative or memorable.
The bombastic score (by Junkie XL), the in-your-face effects, and the loud, incoherent plot team up to bully the audience into having a good time, but the movie ends up simply wearing itself out. Rather than the opening chapter of a grand, new saga, it’s a hyperactive dead end.
Directed by Christian Rivers, Mortal Engines stars Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Andy Serkis, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, and Stephen Lang. The film opens Friday nationwide.