As a battle rages in London over whether Britain should withdraw from the European Union, the sci-fi epic Mortal Engines offers the opposite scenario — London on wheels, rolling across Europe and ingesting smaller cities.
Mortal Engines is another post-apocalypse from another series of YA novels (this time by Philip Reeve), though this one is distinguished by the spare-no-expense budget needed to build its imaginative, detailed and (mostly) unique world, designed with steampunk motifs suited to the idea of a scavenger society assembling a new world from spare parts of the old.
The film is directed by Christian Rivers, special effects coordinator for Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies (Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh provide the script). Those franchises relied increasingly on special effects as they matured — often favoring digital spectacle over story and character — and that emphasis is certainly in evidence here.
Rivers’ vision is something to see — I was particularly impressed with the flying machines that turn up midway through, powered by Osprey-style tilting engines, steered by fins and sails that suggest flying fish and sailing ships.
Yet while the movie is often dazzling, it’s also frequently dull. There is an inert human story at its core, centered on a young woman named Hester (Hera Hilmar) with a lethal grudge against the sinister leader (Hugo Weaving) of the marauding metropolis city of London.
She starts out as his prisoner, then his prey — on the run from the rolling city, roving the dangerous wasteland accompanied by a London outcast named Tom (Robert Sheehan) wearing a British Invasion band outfit and a mod mop-top to match.
Tom’s a bit of a stumblebum, and Hester saves him more than once, but she notices that he’s earnestly taken with her, and stands by her when he has a chance to bolt, something that resonates with her past. I’d like to say that sparks fly, but the chemistry between these two actors is nonexistent (hurt by some bad dialogue), and it’s a big problem for Mortal Engines, a movie desperately short on emotion (despite a bombastic score designed to cue them). There is actually more depth of feeling between Hester and Shrike (Stephen Lang) the robot dispatched to killer her.
Shrike is straight out of The Terminator — the eyes glow green instead of red, but he makes the same hydraulic whirring when he moves, and his giant feet clomp with the same metal-on-metal sound. There’s also a rebel leader (Jihae) with Matrix eyewear, a flowing coat, and a cool sidearm, and while that seems like an affectionate homage, other forms of borrowing are less excusable, especially as they make the movie predictable.
The finale is pure Star Wars. London-on-Wheels essentially turns into a death star with a weapon that must be disabled before it destroys the stronghold of the rebel alliance. Airborne fighters swoop in, dodging deck guns, but at least the light sabers are absent.
In the steampunk future, scores are settled with knives.
Directed by Christian Rivers. With Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae and Stephan Lang. Distributed by Universal.
Running time: 128 minutes
Parents' Guide: PG-13 (violence)
Playing at: Area theaters.