Review: ‘Mortal Engines’ (London Crawling)

Your steampunk airship Star Wars Mad Max mashup has arrived at last.

In a post-apocalyptic wasteland over a thousand years in Earth’s future, “predator cities” run down settlements for precious waning resources, self-contained on massive tractor-treads and giant flywheels with internal factories to “digest” whatever they can find. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) manages to stow away onto a town devoured by London, putting her within striking distance of Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a city planner who’s only crime appears to be helping the destitute. The assassination is foiled by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a London archeologist from a lower caste and an expert on “the ancient world.” Both Hester and Tom find themselves ejected from London and into the wastelands, forming an uneasy alliance to survive the dangers descending upon them.

If it wasn’t enough to notice the studio spending very little in the way of pushing this film, there hasn’t been much buzz beyond the initial trailer release; it almost seemed like this was something coming out next year, not mid-December. How bad could a Peter Jackson-produced science-fiction fantasy film be with Weta Workshop effects backing it? The production design looked insane from the first trailer, but the bevy of one-note characters didn’t inspire much confidence. Will filmgoers be rewarded with delighted surprise plopping down coin in exchange for the intended adventure to come?

The opening sequence of a massive landroving superstructure calling itself London running down and swallowing a city whole while not even slowing down is exhilarating, a promise of incredible things to come… yet the remaining film never again reaches that initial plateau. Setting aside the book series that inspired the film as a reference, the distilled plot unfolds like all three original Star Wars films plucked clean of plot points and rammed into a dystopian YA setting. Worse yet is the tepid main character of Hester played underwhelmingly by newcomer Hera Hilmar, a far cry from the Katniss Everdeens or Tris Priors in this genre. By the end, revealed surprises are no surprises at all and the spectacle feels more like a climatic checklist than anything inspired.

Once you notice the first Star Wars reference, even the musical cues in the soundtrack seem familiar. While some characters champion the so-called innocent citizens of London — insert “I have friends on that Death Star” joke here — the airship flown by Anna Fang (Jihae) might as well be named “The Millennium Cardinal.” The moment a cloud city appears, you can already determine its fate long before the mandatory warning signs are shown. From superweapon recharging delays (presumably to give the heroes time to succeed) to drawn-out final confrontations (so villains can monologue), there’s zero emotional impact or investment — only spectacle remains. The production design is impressive and fun at times, especially the pop-culture references to the ancient world aka our world, but like Hugo Weaving’s Valentine, it all seems wishy-washy and lacking commitment.

Maybe it’s the extra subplot about Stephen Lang’s Shrike or other characters who abruptly appear for audience approval and acceptance yet no actual purpose or motivation. It could be the character’s themselves, but most of the cast seems entirely bored with everything going on: “What plaything can you offer me today?” The London caste system goes unexplored as a footnote and the Londonites are mostly faceless Empire thugs, from Bobby stormstroopers to uniformed technicians. Where are all the other predator cities? How about Berlin? It’s difficult to paint this as style over substance because it’s not that kind of film, but with so little emphasis on why viewers should care, it’s as meaningful as your average Michael Bay Transformers sequel: big, loud, pretty, and hollow.

Mortal Engines is rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence/action and the foolishness of opening Pandora’s box — search your feelings; you know it to be true!

Two skull recommendation out of four

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