With a book series already published and Peter Jackson’s writing team on board to convert, Mortal Engines ticks the boxes for any film studio looking for a money-making franchise with a pre-existing fanbase.
Still, even with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens converting, and Jackson protege Christian Rivers directing (he worked on storyboards across all of Jackson’s movies), Mortal Engines is a movie with a great deal of promise, but finds itself running out of gas before the credits roll.
Society as we know it has long collapsed and transformed into what is described as ‘Municipal Darwinism’. The ’60 Minute War’ destroyed much of the world, and the survivors grouped together to form ‘predator cities’, cities that no longer sit-in one place, rather, they have been converted into giant, roaming fortresses that rumble around the country looking for smaller societies to claim as their own.
Led by the Lord Mayor Crone (Game of Thrones’s Patrick Malahide), London has, somewhat ironically, left the British shores and headed across to mainland Europe, looking for smaller cities to swallow up. The next city in its sights happens to have a young lady called Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) in its population, which is good for her – for Hester intends to assassinate Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the head of London’s Historians.
For as nice as Valentine seems to be, he’s got a dark past, and it has something to do with his desire to get his hands on the very weapons that led to society’s collapse.
After a failed attempt at Valentine’s life, Hester finds herself on a road journey across the desolate wastelands of ‘the Great Hunting Ground’, with junior London historian, Tom (Robert Sheehan) in tow, in one of those unlikely couple scenarios where the couple are actually very likely.
Despite their differences, the pair must work together if they’re to return to London and deal with Valentine’s nefarious schemes.
Looking like a cross between Howl’s Moving Castle and the video game Bioshock, Mortal Engines takes us into a rich world with a dense backstory. It absolutely makes sense for a movie franchise, and yet despite having a talented writing team with Lord of the Rings experience, it’s in the book-to-movie conversion where things have gone awry.
The pacing is all over the place with characters disappearing for great stretches of running time, and the one subplot that has the most heart – involving a terminator-like robot called Shrike – is frustratingly under-developed.
With so much backstory to get across, the film contains more exposition than a Christopher Nolan triple bill. That’s understandable, but still a little heavy-handed. And then there’s the tone – at times it feels like the movie aimed at pre-teens (particularly Sheehan’s performance as Tom), but the scale of the violence and destruction – and the menace of Shrike – is far more suitable for a post-teen audience.
For the first two thirds of the movie there’s much to be happy about, it looks glorious and the mystery unfolds intriguingly. But the goodwill it picks up along the way is blown when the final act devolves into city-destroying action scenes with a villain who could have been layered – and perhaps even justifiably motivated – becoming little more than a cliched megalomaniac.
It’s certainly not a disaster, but with plotting as bad as this it’s hard to imagine Mortal Engines getting a boost at the box office.