Peter Jackson may have helped build the parts of Mortal Engines, but he didn’t go so far as taking the director’s wheel.
And that’s why any assumptions Mortal Engines is a young adult Lord of the Rings are best left at home.
First-time director Christian Rivers is a long-time mentee of Jackson, conjuring masterful visual effects on just about all of Jackson’s films. But in taking on a script co-written and produced by Jackson, Rivers must face the director’s task of wrangling together a vast cast of characters, furious CGI and endless world-building of a dark and grungy steampunk dystopia.
In the end, it’s a case of less would have been more.
Adding to the long list of young adult dystopias, Mortal Engines is set in a world post-destruction by a nuclear-type bomb. Just like The Hunger Games and Divergent series, there are upper and lower classes of people, and resources are running out. Here, to survive, people live in unconventional cities. Cities that move around on massive steamroller wheels.
In possibly the weirdest opening of a young adult movie yet, London, in this world a huge, creaky beast of a machine a la Howl’s Moving Castle, chases after a small Bavarian mining city, opening a mouth-like hatch.
It eats the city and its people and takes their fuel.
What follows is two-plus hours crammed with as many cogs and screws of material sourced from Philip Reeve’s young adult novel. Hugo Weaving plays the villainous historian Valentine — that’s a new one — with an understated menace. Robert Sheehan plays Tom, our big hearted protagonist, a young historian who collects “old tech” which in this world includes the latest iPhones, with smashed screens of course.
References to this “old tech” draw a few wry nods, but Mortal Engines lack a connection to its characters. They pop in and out speedily as we lurch between locations.
The plot is standard. There’s a grand plan brewing to rebuild the tech that destroyed the world in the first place. Words and phrases like “Tractionist”, “Infusion converter cell” and “Stabilise the isotopes” add smog to a story of villains and heroes that brings few surprises.
And that’s strange, given the originality of Mortal Engines’ high concept. How do you mess up a chase movie where vehicles are city sized? Despite Rivers’ credentials in the visual medium, the CGI of Mortal Engines is bland. The huge machines should have been wonders to look at, but feel cluttered and difficult to parse, bogging down the relentless action.
It’s the quiet moments you end up looking forward to. In flashbacks that take cues from Lord of the Rings with its haunting choir soundtrack, we cover betrayal, incredibly strange pseudo parents and mysterious artefacts. But they only end up highlighting the soullessness of anything taking place in the present timeline.
Hester Shaw, played by a stoic Hera Hilmar, offers a sympathetic viewpoint among the cast of good and evil characters. But the assassin’s quest for revenge is weighed down by larger events. Her and Tom’s escape sequences come off cheaply, no surprises our heroes are saved at the last.
It takes a while to see through the haze to understand what values Mortal Engines offers its young adult audience. A running motif, a character extending their hand to take another’s in a show of reconciliation, of harmony, almost comes together in the final act. But it’s hard to tell amid the biggest explosions of the movie.
A long road trip that leaves you queasy at journey’s end, Mortal Engines hits all the pitfalls of book to movie adaptations. Too much exposition, too many characters and too many explosions will have you driving elsewhere.
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