Philip Reeves’ post-apocalyptic adventure quartet of books that started with “The Mortal Engines” almost two decades ago finally makes it to cinema adaptation form. But though it’s a stunning, spectacular-looking example of visual effects work from beginning to end, with cities and towns set on wheels and roaring across devastated landscapes, this first film is also a mass of confusion. Separate story upon separate story gets told, small links, some of them explained in random flashbacks, start to link them together, and by the end, it’s one big, epic tale.
But there are so many different people doing so many different things and, on top of that, so many different reasons for all of them doing what they’re doing, it’s pretty hard to keep track of it all (and that’s even before the script’s dealings with Municipal Darwinism, traction cities and a mechanical stalker named Shrike).
Set about a thousand years from now, the film’s introduction tells of humanity being brought to the edge of extinction by the Ancients, and how predator cities have risen. And there you have it: The city of London, or at least a condensed version of it, on wheels, zipping across the deserts, gobbling up small towns on wheels in order to imprison populations, impound their possessions, and hopefully get hold of some “old technology” which could be of use when the current powers that be attempt to take over what’s left of the world.
There are characters galore that do things and have things done to. Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) is a cheery but kind of goofy lad who does menial tasks in the London Museum, but is really a history nut who has always wanted to be an aviator. Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) is a London muckamuck who has some sort of energy project to save the world up his sleeve, but who is very early on revealed to be a nasty villain who will stop at nothing to gain political power. Kate Valentine (Leila George) is the daughter who adores him but has reservations about his goodness vs. badness. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is the red-headed rebel beauty who wants to kill Thaddeus Valentine for reasons of revenge (and just might be related to him).
Their stories and lives, played out on a “Mad Max”-like stage known as the Outland - where, once lost, you should never head South - become intertwined. Some of them would like to be lone rulers; others join forces, even if half of one force wants nothing to do with the other; still others are confused by events unfolding around them. Some get in life-threatening trouble, but are rescued by kindly Samaritans who ... well, the kindly Samaritans end up heading South in the Outland, on purpose.
Then there are more characters: The brave but mysterious airship pilot Anna Fang (Jihae) and, of course, Shrike (Stephen Lang), a former human who is now covered in metal, has bright green glowing eyes, and is either a caring teacher or a murderous hunter or both.
Yeah, there’s just too much going on. The film could have been more satisfying if it stuck to the main story of good guys and bad guys all headed toward one destination - the great wall that protects the nation of Shan Guo - and how it can be breached. But it keeps leaping off into different directions, stopping for a bit to address quantum energy weapons or going for a gag (a pretty good one) about expiration dates on Hostess Twinkies.
I’ll give the film this: The final 15 minutes consists of an unending series of explosive climaxes. Unfortunately, they’re more exhausting to watch than exciting.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Mortal Engines”
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson; directed by Christian Rivers
With Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Leila George, Jihae