With Peter Jackson serving as executive producer, Mortal Engines should feel like more of an event — one with beautifully realized visual effects and the sort of high-fantasy spectacle we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker behind The Lord of the Rings. But the dystopian YA adaptation (a description that has become redundant) is hitting theaters with a whisper. Fitting, given its lackluster action sequences and a tepid (and predictable) story which reads like a steampunk retread of Star Wars by way of Final Fantasy.
It doesn’t help that Mortal Engines – based on the YA book series by Philip Reeve – is going up against highly anticipated holiday blockbusters like Mary Poppins Returns and Aquaman… unless that release tactic was meant to reflect the film’s basic plot about a scrappy underdog going up against a massive bureaucracy that has become a literal machine (it wasn’t). The film, from director Christian Rivers, takes place hundreds of years in the future, after a cataclysmic event has destroyed the world as we know it. Cities have become motorized behemoths on wheels and giant airships; some people have chosen to live in “static” cities on the ground. London is a massive tank that consumes other, smaller and poorer cities, salvaging its artifacts and consuming its metal for fuel under orders from an aging dictator-type. The residents of London cheer these violent consumerist acts. All of the metaphors are exceedingly literal, but this is a movie for… well, it’s allegedly for young people and fans of the book series, but it feels more like a movie produced by the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter section of Hot Topic.
The main cast of characters includes Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young woman fighting the resistance against London and seeking revenge for the murder of her mother at the hands of Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) – a villain whose exact role in London, beyond being cartoonishly evil, is unclear. (Wikipedia says he’s the head of the Guild of Historians, which houses such artifacts as Sunbeam toasters, iPhones, and statues of Minions because this is a Universal film and that IP is free.) Our young male hero is Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a historian who once dreamt of becoming an aviator (which predictably pays off during the climax). Tom reluctantly joins forces with Hester and Anna Fang (South Korean star Jihae), the fugitive leader of the “Anti-Traction League” – a resistance group fighting against cities like London, which seek only to destroy and consume. There’s also a giant robotic creature called Shrike (Stephen Lang), who was once a human man and is now a soulless hunk of metal that curiously resembles Nick Valentine from the Fallout games – a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Hester is essentially the Luke Skywalker of the film, and although Tom has some piloting experience, his encyclopedic knowledge and constant chatter basically makes him the C-3PO in this scenario. Anna Fang is the Han Solo here with her awesome old school RPG-esque airship and unlimited swagger. She is the young Han Solo we truly deserve. Mortal Engines culminates in a largely air-based battle resembling the sequence in which Luke Skywalker leads a squadron of fighter-pilots to infiltrate the Death Star. Without spoiling anything, a third-act reveal is almost identical to a major plot point in the Star Wars universe. And yet, Mortal Engines lacks the entertainment value found in even the lowliest of Star Wars movies – the prequels. I’d happily trade the bland Robert Sheehan for a hopping Yoda in a heartbeat.
While the design of the massive, rolling cities is certainly novel and intriguing, the action sequences leave quite a bit to be desired. It’s the sort of inelegant, poorly edited mish-mash of digital nonsense that makes your eyes glaze over. The mind wanders to more interesting topics like, “I wonder what my cat is doing right now” just to keep your brain active. Don’t worry, by the time your attention returns to the film at hand, you won’t have missed anything – and even if you did, the dialogue is consistently expository.
Perhaps if Universal released Mortal Engines in the doldrums of January or February, it might have arrived with more than a whimper – not quite a bang, but maybe a thump at the very least. One might assume that Jackson’s involvement as executive producer (and co-writer, with frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) would elicit more interest and yield a higher quality of product, especially given that the popularity of the Mortal Engines book series pales in comparison to that of the Wizarding Worlds and Hobbit Holes and such. But maybe this is the level of quality that Jackson & Co. thought fitting for the source material; perhaps they were operating one of those “donate what you feel is appropriate” models. If that’s the case, then they certainly achieved what they set out to do – the bare minimum.