Mortal Engines: Adaptation of YA Novel Offers High-Concept Looks, Low-Rent Story

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C-

Mortal Engines, which is produced by Peter Jackson and written by the team behind the Lord of the Rings films, is grandly, majestically, epically inert, a high-concept fantasy with a wide chasm between the money we see up on the screen and poverty of the story.

A scene from Mortal Engines.

A scene from Mortal Engines.

In the line of such recent eye-candy productions as Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets or Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, the movie is adapted from young adult fiction: the first of Philip Reeve’s four steam punk–styled Mortal Engines novel series. The premise, which is never easy to swallow, is that in the post-apocalyptic future, entire cities are mounted on tank treads, and race about ravaging the devastated planet's remaining resources in a battle of "municipal Darwinism." Most of the action takes place in London, now a jumble of tiered buildings with the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral on top and the London Eye Ferris wheel carting people up and down.

In the opening and best sequence, we see the big London tank, which is now roaming about Bavaria, chasing down a small mobile mining town, harpooning it and drag it on board, where the resources are sucked up and the citizens put to work. In short order, we move from the far-fetched to the exasperating. First-time director Christian Rivers, a long-time story-board and visual effects co-ordinator for Jackson's films, shows little sensitivity to performances or the mechanics of storytelling, establishing the information and emotional beats in an effective fashion.

Our timid, insipid lead is Tom (Robert Sheehan) a nervous apprentice at the Museum of London, specializing in the technology of the "ancients" as folks from our era are called. His work earns the interest of Thaddeus Valentine (Hugh Weaving), who clearly wants these old computer parts for nefarious purposes.

Somewhere deep inside the teeming transit system, Tom, Thadeus and the latter’s daughter, Katherine (Leila George) encounter a young assassin, with a scarf covering her scarred face, who stabs Thaddeus, non-fatally. Tom chases her as she races off through the gnashing gears and tunnels of the city's underbelly, but both of them end up getting tossed down a giant waste chute to the outside world.

The would-be assassin, named Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar) has a grudge against Thaddeus for killing her archaeologist mother when Hester was a child. Tom and Hester are stranded together in the rocky wasteland and then, later, locked together in a room where they fight and fall in love as they struggle to find their way back to the city so Hester can finish her assassination plans.

Meanwhile, the definitely, absolutely and irrefutably evil Thaddeus is busy building a super-weapon to launch from the dome of St. Paul's that will wipe out a huge wall protecting the "static" cities to the east. Worried that his would-be killer Hester is still alive, Thaddeus sends a zombie with a skull head and glowing jade eyes named Shrike (Stephen Lang) to get rid of her. You see, Shrike feels betrayed by Hester because he was sort of a daddy figure after her mother was killed but honestly who cares? The guy’s a killer zombie.

While the action splashes and explodes across the screen, fantasy fans can check off the references: Howl's Moving Castle, Mad Max, and lots of Star Wars, all pushed into the same garburator. Some variety from the over-familiar is provided by a flashy rebel assassin from the ethnically diverse resistance, named Anna Fang (played by American-based, Korean-born musician Jihae), who sports a rockabilly pompadour and flies about in a red dragon-fly like airship.

None of this rescues the film though but Anna and her airship might make a cool screensaver.

Mortal Engines. Directed by Christian Rivers. Starring: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila George and Stephen Lang. Opens wide December 14.