In a distant future, London is a “predator city” roaming a postapocalyptic landscape on giant caterpillar tracks, devouring smaller wheeled towns in order to fuel its voracious appetite for power both literal and figurative. But now there are almost no little towns left, and London turns its sights on faraway lands “across the land bridge” where the “Anti-Traction League” has rebuilt settled civilization and is just sitting there ripe for the plundering. It’s a risky proposition: “We should never have gone into Europe,” the Lord Mayor of London moans. Meanwhile, Tom Natsworthy, a Londoner lost outside the city, falls in with mysterious outsider Hester Shaw, and is discovering what life is like for what’s left of humanity in this hardscrabble world...
The metaphor of Mortal Engines is screamingly obvious. No, it’s not Brexit. No, it’s not urban political elites destroying the lives of ordinary folk. It’s this: Predator Hollywood studios continue their trawling for whatever YA SF/F properties they can scoop up, and they’ve finally gotten to the steampunkish 2001 novel — first in a quartet — by Philip Reeve. It’s not a terribly good book: its worldbuilding is intriguing, but its characters and story are strictly cliché.
And so it is with this big-screen adaptation, a project of Peter Jackson’s WingNut Films, which expends so much effort on its visuals — see it in IMAX or 3D! *groan* — that it forgets that we need well-drawn characters doing things that are meaningful to them if we are going to care, or indeed even notice, how cool it all looks. Even the FX here operates in a bizarre mode of diminishing returns: the opening sequence, in which we witness London chasing down a town and consuming it, is the freshest thing we will see onscreen. By the time we get to the finale, it’s as if everyone behind the scenes is so exhausted that they just figured they could treat us to Star Wars’ attack on the Death Star again and we’ll be good with that. We’re not.
(The director here, Christian Rivers, is a veteran FX artist from Jackson’s stable making his feature debut. He’s yet another example of a white man with no experience directing a feature film being handed the keys to a big-budget blockbuster because of who he knows, not because of any demonstrated experience. And it’s even more infuriating when we see now that he obviously doesn’t have a lot more to offer than fantastical eye candy.)
As a story, Mortal Engines is an absolute disaster. The kid protagonist of the book is now an adult, played by Robert Sheehan, who is 30 years old and looks it; this is most definitely not in the tradition of baby-faced actors playing teens despite being well into adulthood. But Tom Natsworthy the character has not been aged up at all, so he comes across as yet another feckless dolt, useless, aimless, and bland: a half-formed person waiting for someone else to show him the way to some sort of personality. But he’s cast as the hero despite all the far more apparently complicated and genuinely heroic characters — who are, ahem, women — around him merely because he’s the guy and that’s what the guy gets to do. Why doesn’t ragged survivor Hester (Hera Hilmar) or enigmatic “Anti-Traction” aviator Anna Fang (Korean pop star Jihae) get to be the hero?
To be fair to the script — by Jackson and his regular collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — Engines doesn’t seem to know who its protagonist is until literally the last 15 minutes or so of the movie, when suddenly Tom shows signs of having been on a personal journey of learning and growth; previously he had just been getting dragged around by the plot without any sign of wanting much of anything beyond pouting about getting back to London. But it’s not like either Hester or Anna get much in the way of motivation, either, at least not motivation that drives any story; the thing that drives Hester, in fact, is something she achieves (at least as far as she knows) in the first few minutes of the movie, and we’re left wondering why she’s a character in the goings-on at all. Later, Anna shows up via a contrivance that is both preposterously coincidental and also connected to knowledge it seems impossible she could have. Almost nothing that would seem to be fuel for, you know, a story happens until far too long into the movie. I spent most of the two-hours-plus runtime muttering, “What is the story? Where is this going? Whose story is this, even?”
Mortal Engines is lazy, confused, and derivative (apart from Star Wars, there are plot points and visual and thematic motifs stolen from the Terminator series as well as The Hunger Games). Its idea of drama is having characters suddenly sacrificing themselves for no discernible reason out of loyalties that seem random. It cannot be bothered to develop its own mythology besides tossing out phrases like “municipal Darwinism.” There’s no humor to speak of here (and the movie desperately needs some), no romance of any kind (though when it tries to inject some of the lovey-dovey kind, it’s laughably implausible), no urgency or relevance. It is an exercise in production design in search of a reason to be getting in our faces this aggressively. And it never finds one.
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