The opening sequence of Mortal Engines is nothing short of spectacular. A lone woman scouts an open plain, and a moving object catches her eye. Distressed, she retreats to a settlement, yet warns no one. Moments later, the denizens of the settlement are alerted to the approaching object, and their ‘city’ breaks into pieces. Folding up onto wheels and into moving towns & villages, they flee the approaching leviathan.
One city, resembling a long-lost Bavaria, sputters to a start while attempting its own escape. But its smoke-spewing engines seem ill-matched for the enormous pursuer, whose front doors – emblazoned with the Union Jack – open to swallow the tiny ‘city’ whole.
Had Mortal Engines capitalized at all on the excitement of this opening, what a film it could have been. Instead, we get a laboriously paced, overly long film with too many side-plots and extraneous characters, some dressed as steampunk hipsters, others rejects from a colorized version of The Matrix.
And the acting throughout is ridiculous.
Produced by Peter Jackson, the film tells the story of a post-WWIII Europe, set some centuries in the future, where mobile settlements have replaced static cities. “Why” isn’t quite clear: they need to scavenge fuel and materials, that much is stated. But are they evading some unseen enemy? That is less apparent.
The lone woman we see in the opening is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who was actually trying to board the British vessel. She seeks revenge on her mother’s behalf for a crime that is to others long forgotten. The subject of her antipathy is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) an archaeologist who… is building a power plant?
Once aboard (the movie calls the British ship the City of London), she seeks out her prey and makes a mess of her long-planned vengeance. She flees into the bowels of the ship, and we begin to realize the film isn’t going to dwell on any aspects of the fantastic imagery and visuals it is presenting. Everything flies by too fast, and the editing is too chaotic. There is so much to see here, but we glimpse very little of it.
In Hester’s flight, she makes the acquaintance of Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a very British young man who gave up dreams of being an aviator to become… a museum curator? It doesn’t really make sense, but really, a lot of this film doesn’t. And Sheehan’s more than passing resemblance to Gabe Jarret (Mitch of Real Genius fame) is more distracting than the caterpillars he calls eyebrows.
The film becomes a bit of a cat and mouse as Hester chases Valentine, Tom tries to return to London, and various people find out that Valentine is up to no good. Along the way, there are some spectacular set-pieces, namely a city in the sky that seems evolved from old Shanghai. But there is some appalling acting, which unfortunately peaks at the same time as said set-piece arrives.
JiHAE plays Anna Fang, the thorn in Valentine’s side as a leader of the resistance against mobile cities… I think? She’s introduced in a slow-motion spectacle wearing fashionable shades and a bright-red jumpsuit that appears unaffected by the filthy slave market through which she’s traipsing. Her performance is the most woeful of the many in her rag-tag bunch of rebels, and each scene she’s in brings the entire enterprise down a notch.
Which means we don’t get a clear look at the more interesting subplot of the android who raised Hester. His characterization is limited due to screen time, which appears unintentional with the weight his role is later given. This is one of the many areas where the editors seemed to piece the story together in the wrong order.
As the film winds to its climax, and pieces start to fall together – or are forced together in some cases – the cliches begin to pile on. Mortal Engines had a limited amount of originality going for it, which it completely abandons to crib from both Star Wars and Flash Gordon. Seriously, there is one shot that is literally plagiarizing the Millennium Falcon’s escape from the second Death Star.
It is upsetting to see so much work go into building a world, and so little time spent inhabiting & appreciating that world, as we are jerked from one subplot to the next. Further to the point, the fact that none of the actors here are any good, never mind are they able to create compelling characters, makes it a true drudgery to sit through. The film definitely seemed to be cast based on how everyone looked rather than how they act.
Mortal Engines runs out of momentum early on, and cannot rescue itself despite some astonishing effects work. A film as beautiful to look at as this one shouldn’t be so excruciating to watch.