UK Release Date: 14th December 2018
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Christian Rivers
Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Starring: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Leila George, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Stephen Lang, Patrick Malahide
Synopsis: After an apocalyptic war ravages the globe, battle rages between predatory cities in search of fuel, while a resistance movement advocates staying in one place.
I confess that, when I sat down to watch Mortal Engines, I knew nothing about Philip Reeve’s quartet of books, other than the fact they had inspired this film. So when the initial voiceover spoke about “the age of the great predator cities of the West”, I was baffled and intrigued to say the least. Unfortunately, the subsequent two hours form one of the most tedious and misguided movies of the year – a fantasy adventure that’s far from fantastic and seriously lacking in adventuring.
In the world of the film, the aforementioned predator cities prowl through the wastelands of what was once Europe on the hunt for smaller cities which they can then harvest for fuel, food and other goods. The system is known as Municipal Darwinism. Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) is a key ruling figure of London, which is a feared predator city nominally led by mayor Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide), though it seems Valentine pulls most of the strings. Apprentice historian Tom (Robert Sheehan), who makes his living scrounging for ‘Old Tech’, rescues Valentine from an assassination attempt by Hester (Hera Hilmar), only to find himself exiled along with her, suggesting Valentine has something to hide.
The problem with Mortal Engines, which is directed by Peter Jackson‘s protégé Christian Rivers from a script co-written by Jackson along with regular writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, is that it has far too much explaining to do. The mad central concept asks the audience to do some real intellectual leaps in order to go with it, not least the notion that a planet-destroying apocalypse is logically followed by people riding about in big cities with mouths.
All of this would be acceptable, were it not for the fact that there isn’t a single memorable character in Mortal Engines. Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmar play the leads, but frankly they could be anyone and they don’t really ever seem to have any recognisable character traits. Hugo Weaving, meanwhile, is a generic sneering villain and, by the time Stephen Lang shows up as an undead cyborg, any notion of emotional connection has flown out of the window along with the hope that a coherent narrative might somehow emerge from the rubble. What’s left is a mess of thringy-thrangy-blibbety-blabbety dialogue that means nothing to anyone other than a hardcore Mortal Engines fan.
The pacing, too, is all over the shop, with the two hour running time peaking and troughing at random. More than once, the film appears to wind up for the finale, only to expand for another action sequence. But most upsetting is that the film, despite its one-of-a-kind premise, is hugely derivative. Every time you think it has become as close to a Star Wars retread as it’s possible to get, it takes another step towards George Lucas‘s sci-fi classic, with one moment involving Valentine transformed entirely into unintentional comedy.
It seems, mercifully, to be unlikely that the subsequent entries in the Mortal Engines book series will ever make it to the big screen. The film has bombed at the box office, and it’s very easy to see why. Despite a potentially fun concept, this leaden and overlong blockbuster is unable to ever find a purpose. It’s not particularly exciting, desperately bloated and completely lacking in even a single character worth caring about.
Pop or Poop?
The presence of Peter Jackson in the credits is usually enough to make any fantasy film exciting. It seems Christian Rivers was banking on that for Mortal Engines, which fails at every conceivable level – from script to direction to visual effects. Not so much steampunk as snoozepunk.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.