Film Review: Mortal Engines

Directed by: Christian Rivers; Runtime: 128 minutes
Grade: C-

There are four installments that make up Philip Reeve's quartet of "Mortal Engines" novels, built around the popularized steampunk brand of post-apocalyptic atmosphere that came about following a manmade collapse of society. A wide array of characters from across the spectrum of morality comprise the people who inhabit Reeve's world: a rebellious orphan with a physical abnormality, a promising intellectual limited by their obligations, the conflicted daughter of an authoritarian, and so on. In short, no shortage of potential for a new cinematic franchise cranks-‘n-spurts at the core of "Mortal Engines", potential that Lord of the Rings mastermind Peter Jackson has been trying to bring into reality for over a decade since he bought the adaptation rights. Much like the fantasy director's return to Middle-earth, however, the big-screen Mortal Engines exhibits the symptoms of wanting to recapture the magic of other franchises instead of a pure desire to realize a new world, and the product merely clunks along out of necessity instead of inspiration.

While Jackson may not have directed the film himself, his creative presence can still be felt in his position as co-writer and producer, while his longstanding art and visuals manager Christian Rivers makes his feature-length debut as director. They throttle the audience into the realm of a not-so-distant future version of Great Britain and Europe ravaged by an event called the Sixty Minute War, which left a wasteland in its wake where giant moving mechanical cities engage in battles between one another. Typically, smaller cities are "consumed" by larger ones, its citizens assimilated and resources dispersed. With older technology valued the relics of an ancient and revered civilization, the citizens of the cities engage in post-apocalyptic forms of ambition within these mechanized cities. Some -- like aspiring historian Tom (Robert Sheehan) -- operate under the lordship of authoritarians like Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide) and Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the leaders of London and its persistent drive to consume other cities; others, like the masked rogue Hester (Hera Hilmar), scrape along in smaller pacifistic cities and plot how to dethrone those capitalistic entities.

Fast-forwarding the global state to a point where entire cities are not only rolling around by machinery, but also engaging in combat with one another is a tall order, demanding lots of groundwork to be laid. There's no shortage of this in Mortal Engines: beginning with another deep voiceover in the vein of Galadriel's from LOTR, the film starts to explain how the world arrived at this state … and then, transitioning into frequent conversations with obvious exposition intentions, keeps explaining and explaining, instead of showing and allowing one to experience it. The screenplay from Jackson and his frequent co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh understands that an audience can't be haphazardly thrown into this environment without numerous moving parts making some degree of sense, but their efforts are bogged down by the obligation -- and rush -- to do so and how that takes away from the writers' enthusiasm in creating a new cinematic world. The process of running down a checklist to cover the story's bases gets confused with world-building; fortunately, this doesn't weigh down the film's pacing amid the chatter, remaining brisk regardless.

The purpose-driven nature of those conversations in Mortal Engines also detracts from the depth of the characters populating the mobile cities, to which there's no shortage of ‘em to introduce and flesh out in a short amount of time. What happens, as a result, is that they come across as shadows -- often forgettable ones -- of personalities in similar sci-fi and dystopian young-adult franchises, chief among them being its numerous "borrowed" elements from Star Wars and Harry Potter. Lead characters Hester and Tom function like an amalgamation of Luke Skywalker and The Boy Who Lived that's been split off, reassembled and packaged as different personalities, and the absence of onscreen chemistry between ‘em leaves the unremarkable, yet altogether tolerable performances from Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan to work with only those remnants of their influences as substance. There are standouts, such as Hugo Weaving's intensity as the not-so-morally gray villain Valentine and Jihae as the slick, magnetic scoundrel Anna Fang, but they're shiny parts knocking around in a dated, rickety vehicle.

That doesn't mean that, in all its weathered and rapid glory, Mortal Engines isn't attractive. Naturally, the legendary WETA Workship throws down the gauntlet for this adaptation that Peter Jackson has been waiting to realize for over a decade: enormous mechanical cities full of steam, gears, and citizens do battle in a dazzling early fusion of CG effects and set design; mythical flying ships effortlessly glide through the sky in convincing digital gusts; a green-eyed mechanical golem slowly yet menacingly stomps forward and interacts with humans. From a technical and aesthetic standpoint, this team has constructed a marvel that keeps the eyes engaged with both intricate production design and digital wizardry from start to finish, and, as previously mentioned, it doesn't waste any time in getting the heroes from place to place in as stimulating of ways as possible. Whether it taps into the premise's potential or not is another story, as the initial brawl between cities -- celebrated in the trailers -- ends up being one of very few scenes like this in the film, while WETA gets overly confident in the immersive threshold of their fully digital effects.

Despite the technical achievements, Mortal Engines continues to suffer from trying too hard to establish itself as "the" new franchise to fill the void left by the absence of The Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings, instead of concentrating on making sure that this entry's a fine-tuned machine on its own. Themes of sacrifice, cooperation, and whether the ends justify the means hit expected notes in an appropriately explosive and objectively tense finale, which certainly sets the stage for several sequel adaptations of Philip Reeve's novels to follow. Nothing's surprising in the ending, though, outside of how brazenly this filmed version of the story copies -- quite specifically -- from another franchise in the tone and machinations of a key reveal, which seems like an inconsequential addendum here. Mortal Engines ends up feeling like a hurried diversion instead of another captivating transportation to another world from Peter Jackson and company, one that's preoccupied with the years to come instead of what it should be seizing here and now. Going by this, there may not be another adventure in its future.

Though, an Anna Fang spinoff might just take flight ...

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