Mortal Engines opens up with a larger-than-life chase sequence whereby the city of London is pursuing a smaller township. We are given a few cheesy lines of narration to explain that a 60-minute war decimated the Earth and civilisation had been reduced to nomadic cities on wheels, traipsing across the landscape and consuming smaller towns for resources. The time frame is approximately 1000 years from now and despite the lack of advanced technology, these colossal engines are somehow able to roam the world, while others fly and live in the sky. And so goes one of the most stupid films of the year.
It has been adapted from a series of award-winning books, of which there are nine, and while the story might have leaped off the page and gripped its readers, it translates terribly to film and makes for a cringe-worthy and embarrassing reproduction.
Hera Hilmar (Da Vinci’s Demons) stars as Hester Shaw, a mysterious woman who sneaks onto London and attempts to murder the chief engineer, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). A young lower-class apprentice, Tom Natsworthy (played by Robert Sheehan, The Mortal Instruments), gets caught up in Hester’s quest and before he knows it he’s expelled from the city and abandoned in the wastelands. Enter a group of resistance fighters hell-bent on bringing London to its knees and cue a ridiculously exaggerated musical score by Junkie XL that insists on competing for the audience’s attention.
To say that Mortal Engines is a hot mess is an understatement. Working from a dumb concept, it evokes every cliché in the book and sets about imitating as many science fiction adventure movies as possible. It is a crockpot of influences masquerading as something unique. At times it wants to be Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and at other times it wants to be The Lord of the Rings. Throw in some City of Ember comparisons and then slop it on a plate for the audience to consume. The dish in question is best described as a “steampunk Star Wars” (with a Darth Vader-esque villain ‘n’ all) with a few lousy cautionary social commentaries added as garnish.
The film was directed by Christian Rivers, making his directorial debut. He is best known as Peter Jackson’s storyboard artist and occasional visual effects artist, having first worked with Jackson on Braindead in 1992 as a fresh-faced teenager and sticking with him on every project since. When you consider his back-story, there is no denying the remarkable trajectory his career has taken, and to helm a film as ambitious in scope as Mortal Engines is surely a terrifying prospect. To his credit, the film’s failure is certainly not his failure, but rather that of the insipid and laborious screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The trio has been collaborating since The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and with all of the successes in their wake they seem to have reached a point where style takes precedence over substance. The formula for their films has become “more, more, more,” and to hell with the quality.
Visually, Mortal Engines is impressive, and the mastery of production design and visual effects cannot be denied. Having said that, it all looks silly and can never be taken seriously. The sight of a major city on wheels simply looks inane and whatever actual depth (haha) the film is going for is lost amongst the mindless antics. The cast is also underwhelming, lacking both star power and instant appeal. Hugo Weaving is always reliable, although this is another example of him taking the piss and not actually caring about his work. He once famously dissed Marvel and declared his regret of starring in Captain America: The First Avenger, and yet he appears to return to such frivolous films without hesitation. Of course, he has a substantial body of work to counteract these necessary income-earners, and can be forgiven for sporting ridiculous hairpieces while spouting lame-brained dialogue. The rest of the cast members go through the motions, doing little with the material and playing to the clichés.
Mortal Engines has arrived to us with anticipation and excitement, and I wish it were good. I think it’s time for Peter Jackson & Co to reevaluate their creative output, and perhaps return to basics. There was a glimmer of hope when they produced The Lovely Bones, a modest thriller similar in vein to their remarkable 1994 picture Heavenly Creatures. These are the types of films they would benefit from making more of, and maybe they could give the fans what they really want by returning to their horror roots. Bad Taste, Brain Dead and The Frighteners cement Jackson’s legacy as a master of horror, and yet he seems so reluctant to return to what he does best. At least for this writer, producing films like Mortal Engines is a creatively stagnant direction and does not serve him well at all. It’s time for him to revolutionise cinema again, and not contribute to its decline.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★☆☆☆☆
‘Mortal Engines’ opens in Australian cinemas on December 6 and hits the US on December 14.