There are exactly two good jokes in Mortal Engines, and they involve Minions and a Twinkie. These tiny scraps of humor jump out like Pop Rocks in a bowl of oatmeal, not only because everything that surrounds them is so dingy, but also because they remind us of the possibilities of the film’s core premise: that more than 1,000 years from now, the world will be covered with “traction cities,” lumbering metropolises that clank across continents in search of resources in the wake of a “60 minute war” that wiped out the majority of Earth’s population, sending technology back to the Victorian era as it did so. That’s right. Grab your goggles, tinkerers and tea-sippers: It’s steampunk time!
There’s so much you could do with the history of such a society, or with its social structure, or with the religion and politics of people who wake up in a new location every single day. And Mortal Engines has an expert world-builder on hand in the form of Peter Jackson, who adapted Phillip Reeve’s 2002 sci-fi novel for the screen alongside his Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit team of Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The trio does add some appealingly granular details—yes, that includes maps, as well as obscure forms of currency and tossed-off references to long-ago wars—to enhance the world-building, by far the best aspect of the film. But in their passion for detail, they’ve glossed over some big questions about the “how”s and “why”s of this wacky retro-future. They’ve also wholly neglected the already flimsy characters, who don’t have coherent motivations or even consistent accents. To be fair, though, that last bit is more on director Christian Rivers, who similarly imagines mobile cities that are impressive and imaginative when sitting still but blur into ugly nonsense every time they move.
The most intimidating of these cities is London, which over the centuries has grown from a flatbed truck draped with a Union Jack or whatever (who knows, the origins of the “traction cities” are one of this film’s big questions) into a massive multi-tiered beast that literally consumes smaller cities for sustenance. The residents of those other cities are then absorbed into London’s lower classes, who live on the bottom tier, next to its eternally churning engine. The upper tiers are populated by historians, traders, engineers, and navigators—a stratified system which is too complex to get into here (and isn’t explained very well in the film itself). The whole thing is ruled by mayor Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who claims to be working on a new energy source that will keep London on the move forever.
That plan is complicated by the arrival of Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), who arrives in London at the beginning of the film and immediately shanks Valentine with a blade hidden up her sleeve. She’s pursued by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a naive junior employee of the London Museum who witnessed Hester’s hasty assassination attempt as he was rummaging through bins of “old tech” (i.e., metal scraps that have somehow survived the centuries since Armageddon) in the city’s lower tier. Before we know it, Tom and Hester have both been sucked out of London’s exhaust hatch, and the unwilling travel companions set out across the muddy wastelands, bickering the entire way. They’ll soon be kidnapped, sold into slavery, rescued by pirates, pursued by Hester’s adopted undead cyborg father (it’s a long story), and have the truth about Valentine’s sinister plans revealed to them in dramatic fashion.
Mortal Engines was intended to be a baton pass of sorts from Jackson to Rivers, the former’s longtime visual effects designer, making his feature directorial debut. Some effects artists have been able to successfully transition into directing—just look at James Cameron!—but the jump from short film to $100 million blockbuster seems to have to been a rough one for Rivers. His lack of control is especially obvious in the action sequences, which are shaky, choppy, and hard to follow, even in scenes that are relatively light on CGI. But his inexperience also shows in the lifeless performances. It’d be easy to miss the burgeoning romance between our leads were it not explicitly stated in the dialogue several times over, and rebel leader Anna Fang (Jihae)—who swoops in, Han Solo style, to help Hester and Thaddeus out of a jam and whisks them away to a city in the clouds—is less of a charming rogue than a blank slate, a waste given the South Korean pop star’s obvious ease in front of the camera.
Speaking of dear old Han, there’s a lot of Star Wars in Mortal Engines’ grimy set design, laser beams of mass destruction, and reliance on passing aircraft ex machina, only with hulking British guys covered in soot instead of aliens. (A poor trade, if you ask us.) The film also lacks the spirit of fun that makes even the darkest Star Wars movies enjoyable viewing experiences, and would have made Mortal Engines’ clunky expository dialogue and stupefying climactic battle a little easier to forgive. As is, this is a headache-inducing spectacle that raises more questions than it answers, and does little to inspire viewers to go find the answers themselves. But hey, at least it’s too loud to fall asleep to.