An adventure set more than 1,000 years in the future, Mortal Engines features navigators straight out of the present day.
A feast for the eyes if not necessarily the brain, this adaptation of a science-fiction novel by British author Philip Reeve finds its narrative substance overwhelmed by visual spectacle.
Despite its ambitious post-apocalyptic premise, the muddled and convoluted screenplay is a disappointment considering it’s written by the Lord of the Rings team of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, all of which have won Oscars.
As the story opens, most of Earth has been ravaged by a conflict known as the Sixty Minute War, leaving many survivors caught up in the concept of “Municipal Darwinism,” which refers to smaller mobile cities being literally swallowed up by larger ones.
For example, London has stacked many of its landmarks and citizens on a rolling tank-like mechanism. That’s where a scarred young woman named Hester (Hera Hilmar) climbs aboard with a mission — to kill the archaeologist (Hugo Weaving) who allegedly murdered her mother.
Her quest for revenge turns into a fight for survival alongside Tom (Robert Sheehan), who likewise has a score to settle but few resources at his disposal. Gradually, they assemble a ragtag group of young rebels with the goal of infiltrating London and stopping the development of a massive weapon that could wipe out most of the remaining human population.
Flashbacks gradually reveal more details about Hester’s back story, including her bizarre relationship with Shrike (Stephen Lang), a disfigured skeleton creature who has since become an enemy.
Under rookie director Christian Rivers, who worked as a storyboard artist on Jackson’s films, Mortal Engines is an impressive technical achievement, including a stylish depiction of a stark dystopian landscape combined with seamless special effects. The opening chase sequence, when we first see entire cities on wheels, is especially something to behold.
The script includes elements of political allegory regarding immigration and imperialism, also functioning as a cautionary tale about futuristic urban planning and mechanical engineering as it funnels into an elaborately chaotic finale.
At any rate, this latest attempt to launch a young-adult fantasy franchise is saddled with characters who aren’t as compelling as their surroundings. That limits the incentive for emotional investment, either in the outcome of this first installment or any that might follow.