A film review by Craig J. Koban December 26, 2018

 

MORTAL ENGINES j
   

2018, PG-13, 128 mins.

 

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw  /  Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy  /  Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine  /  Jihae as Anna Fang  /  Ronan Raftery as Bevis Pod  /  Leila George as Katherine Valentine  /  Patrick Malahide as Magnus Crome  /  Stephen Lang as Shrike

Directed by Christian Rivers  /  Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, based on the book by Philip Reeve

 

 

 

MORTAL ENGINES is an absolutely stunning triumph of visual effects, art direction, and production design.  

It's also, rather unfortunately, an abysmal failure on a basic character and story front.  

Despite an ambitiously bonkers premise, I simply didn't care about anyone or anything in this post apocalyptic sci-fi film.  I think the overall intent when it comes to cinematic world building is for a film to legitimately feel like it's transporting you to another time and place and makes, in turn, its otherworldly universe seem tangible and real.  But they also have to populate these miraculous worlds that inspire awe and wonder with personas that we identify with.  MORTAL ENGINES is an awesome display of filmmaking technology that's rendered all but soulless and dramatically D.O.A. by the hollowness of its writing.  

This is, when all is said and done, one the best looking bad films I've ever seen. 

But, man oh man, this film - based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Philip Reeve - has one gangbusters premise: In a world of the very distant future, well after a massive global cataclysm, the remaining cities have been mounted on motorized wheels and zip around what remains of the planet to "devour" and assimilate smaller mobile cities.  To say that Reeve's book was preposterously high concept is the grandest of understatements, and I can certainly see what producer Peter Jackson (also serving as co-screenwriter here, adapting the source material with fellow LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) saw the big screen potential of this material.  Utilizing the same effects wizards that previously brought Middle Earth to life and director Christian Rivers (a long time art director that has worked under Jackson for years and won an Oscar for his VFX work on KING KONG), the pedigree of the crew on board for MORTAL ENGINES is stellar, and this American-New Zealand production succeeds on a level of pure visual dynamism that deserves to be seen on as big of a screen as possible.  Mournfully, though, all of the eye popping spectacle in the world is all for naught when the screenplay itself is of the pedestrian and woefully derivative kitchen sink variety.  For the most part, MORTAL ENGINES is hopelessly awash in Young Adult genre troupes that has no business being as dull as it is.   

 

 

The obligatory solemn voiceover narration early on informs us how "The Ancients" destroyed Earth's cities in "only 60 minutes."  That's awfully quick, even by post-apocalyptic film standards.  After this so-called "Sixty Minute War" the remains of society regrouped, as they always do in these types of films, and formed beyond huge "Predator Cities" that hunt and take over smaller cities in what remains of Europe, in a process referred to as "Municipal Darwinism."  Now, how any civilization that was left over from cities decimated in under 60 minutes managed to scavenge enough raw materials, fuel, and manpower to build cities on massive wheels the film never once plausibly explains.  How did they build the engines and wheels?  How did they hoist cities and place them on top of said engines?  Where did they get the tools and equipment?  Where did they get the machinery and workforce?  Where did they get food and supplies to support the cities and the men and women that built and live in them?  How does the massive weight of these Predator Cities not lead to them sinking into the soil beneath them while in transport?  Seeing as a majority of the environments shown in the film appear to be barren and inhospitable wastelands it's highly doubtful that the makers of the Predator Cities could have bought building materials and rented tools and a local Home Depot. 

The present day of the film - a thousand years in the future - introduces us to the Predator City of London, overseen and commanded by Mayor Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide) as he bares down on the smaller mining settlement mobile city of Salzhaken (this opening action sequence is one of the few spellbinding moments in the film, giving us our first sensory overload appearance of these cities and how London literally opens up its mouth to harpoon in and eat its smaller prey, which builds towards the only moment in movie history having a military man scream out the order "PREPARE TO INGEST!").  One of the refugees from the smaller city, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), attempts to assassinate the Guild of the Historians in London, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), which is foiled by one of his apprentices, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan).  Both Hester's and Tom's lives change for the worse when the nefarious Thaddeus shows his true colors as a baddie and violently ejects them both out of London, leaving them to certain death.  Struggling to survive the scorched earth, Tom and Hester learn of Thaddeus' plan to build an unstoppable weapon to destroy everything that gets in London's way, which forces them to team up with the Anti-Traction League (who live in non-mobile cities) to stop Thaddeus.  Complicating matters is an undead mechanical creature named Shrike (Stephan Lang, in heavily disguised CGI form) that has deep personal ties to Hester's past that prove rather dangerous for all moving forward. 

There's so much bloody going on here in MORTAL ENGINES that I felt compelled to take notes during my screening to make sense of it all.  There's simply so many characters with so many individual motives permeating the film that one has to begin wondering whether or not this would have worked better in a long form mini-series to properly flesh out versus the limiting time frame of a two hour movie.  Plus, there's an awful lot of exposition littered throughout the narrative that's intended, I guess, to establish the particulars of this world and how all of the characters fit inside of it, but character development is so ineptly handled here that I was left puzzled as to why I really should root for Hester and her overall mission...other than the fact the movie tells me I should.  The undercooked performances don't help the cause either, with Sheenan and Hilmar failing to generate any ample charisma and chemistry together as a pair of banded heroes.  Hell, even the great Hugo Weaving - so wonderfully inspired in other films playing memorable villains - seems atypically reserved here.  His performance never seems to embrace the sheer absurdity of the film's premise; like the whole enterprise's tone, Weaving plays his part as serious as a heart attack and without any self-deprecating irony. 

Too much of MORTAL ENGINES feels distractingly appropriated from too many other better films.  It's like a steam punk STAR WARS crossed morphed with George Miller's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD with a healthy dosage of Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL haphazardly thrown in for good measure.  It's not ever a good hodgepodge, seeing as MORTAL ENGINE's plot itself is a blow-by-blow replay of George Lucas' first entry set in a galaxy far, far away.  You have a young and determined hero with mysterious parentage that allies herself with snarky mercenaries to wage war on a megalomaniacal villain with aspirations of world domination that's building a super laser weapon that can destroy cities with one blast.  Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?  Lucas himself, it could be argued, amalgamated several genres, classic storytelling archetypes, and iconic hero's journey themes from countless source materials when conceptualizing STAR WARS, but his end result fostered a whole new and audaciously realized pop culture mythology that felt exciting and new despite its borrowing from the past.  MORTAL ENGINES, by direct comparisons, is high on borrowing but decidedly very, very low on conceptual freshness.  And unlike Lucas' grand and fully fleshed out universe, the post-nuclear wasteland with cities on wheels of this film never makes an intriguing case for viewers to want to return to it in further installments.  And considering the vastness of scale in display in MORTAL ENGINES, the film feels emotionally thin and hollow. 

This is as visually dazzling as any blockbuster I've ever seen, to be sure.  The film has a lavish and sweeping epic stature with its imagery that's superficially impressive and has the power to wow viewers, but where's the inspirational and ethereal magic that taps into the deeper recesses of our collective imaginations with a transformative potency?  Despite remarkable, Oscar caliber eye candy, MORTAL ENGINES is an exhausting and wasteful slog of a film with non-committal performers and lethargic scripting that rarely ever achieves euphoric lift-off.  And considering the enormity of the talent on board here and the vast resources utilized, this is one of the most wasteful and unremarkable film endeavors of 2018.  MORTAL ENGINES is a $100-plus million visual effects highlight reel...and not much else. 

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