The Pitch: After the Ancients destroyed Earth almost instantly in the 60-Minute War, the small pockets of humans who survived find themselves struggling to survive in a landscape which now favors “the great predator cities of the West.” London is now the most powerful of them all, a rolling monstrosity of opulent tiered buildings and destructive mounted weapons. Other, smaller cities tear across the endless deserts, hoping to avoid being “consumed” by London, which tears apart any smaller berg it finds to the cheers of its privileged citizens. Aboard London, Tom (Robert Sheehan) yearns to discover the antiquated tech of the Ancients, but when his stash of wartime military equipment is discovered by London’s governing body, it’s up to he and the mysterious anti-tractionist Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a scarred hunter with a deep connection to London’s head scientific official Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), to stop the second end of the world. Steampunk ahoy!
Sputtering Off the Line: Mortal Engines opens with a giant city racing a smaller through the desert, in a visually feverish extension of the ideas outlined by the Mad Max movies, before it’s devoured by the gaping maw of a metropolis-sized tank. Were all of the film able to sustain the eye-popping madness of that opening, Mortal Engines would be a cult sci-fi classic in the making. As it stands, anybody who enjoys the steel-and-steam aesthetics of steampunk are still very likely to fall in love, but most other audiences may well struggle to stay with a movie that veers from wide-scale action to YA melodrama to wordy franchise franchise building with reckless abandon. The early scenes rush along at a pace surely to leave viewers winded, as screenwriting trio Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens sprint through the basics of the film’s world in order to get to the exciting, art direction-heavy stuff as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, this leaves too much of the emotion throughout feeling thin, especially when Mortal Engines starts to take bounding leaps in its storytelling while leaving little room for anything other than wordy exchanges being delivered in brief between action setpieces on floating cities and rolling cities and giant cities behind walls. And even as xan action-first piece, Mortal Engines is a mixed bag at best. When it’s operating at its heights, particularly in that opening and in a furious scramble across a burning assemblage of giant balloons, the film achieves a pleasing sense of operatic sci-fi theatricality. However, whenever the action is pulled into close quarters, director Christian Rivers frames most of the exchanges with incoherent shaky-cam photography, as though the film is hiding from its own onscreen violence as it goes along. There’s more than one genuinely unpleasant fight scene throughout the film’s 129 minutes, and that unpleasantness is wholly owed to the visually scattered direction.
We (Tried To) Own the Sky: It’s a shame that Mortal Engines never puts its many mismatched pieces together, because the steel skeleton of an entertaining jaunt through a fantastic hellscape is there. Were any of the film’s major dramatic payoffs satisfying (or failing that, at least not cribbed wholesale from Star Wars and the screenwriting trio’s own The Lord of the Rings), the admittedly stunning visuals might be enough to sustain the excessive story. As it stands, however, this feels closer to the Hobbit side of the Jackson think tank than the Rings, a messy patchwork assemblage of leaden world-building, character relationships that either fail to justify the runtime devoted to them or feel entirely false in their resolution, and the kind of big-beyond-big CGI machinations that start as impressive and turn deafening when there’s nothing else of particular note to break them up along the way.
The Verdict: Mortal Engines deals in a number of familiar stock types, which leaves Hilmar and Sheehan with the thankless job of enlivening protagonists whose backstories are hastily rushed through and yet still relied upon for pathos in the film’s late scenes. They step up to the plate effectively enough, Hilmar’s stoic grit matching amiably with Sheehan’s dweeby enthusiasm, but Mortal Engines is too seldom interested in anything going on beyond the titular gigantic machines. Like so many YA adaptations, the interesting fringe corners of the onscreen universe are there, but they go unexplored in favor of a movie that bellows and roars a great deal without leaving too great an impression.
Even so, there are small notes that stand out. The effortless cool of Anna Fang (Jihae), a roguish sky captain, offers a welcome lightheartedness that more of the rest of the film could have used. Tom’s enthusiasm for “ancient” distractions leads to a big laugh or two early on, as the film playfully tinkers with the possibilities of its premise in a way its rushed later acts refuse to allow. But as with any number of popular YA novels-turned-feature films, Mortal Engines has a wealth of possibilities and curious ideas at its disposal. Instead, it tears past them in pursuit of some of the subgenre’s most exhausted narrative tropes, chewing up everything engaging as it grinds along.
Where’s It Playing?: Theaters all over the so-far-unshattered planet, starting December 14th.