Adapted, produced, but not directed by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit mega-series) – that honor (assuming it’s an actual honor) goes to longtime Jackson collaborator and visual effects man Christian Rivers – Mortal Engines, a steampunk Mad Max meets Star Wars (all of them) crossed with The Terminator sci-fi tale that unfolds in a wholly absurd, post-apocalyptic future, earns the no longer rare distinction of being both a franchise starter and a franchise ender rolled up into one disappointing package. An overlong, over-loud, derivative revenge-plot occasionally elevated by semi-inventive production design and semi-convincing CG, Mortal Engines was made for the long forgotten and currently non-existent fans of Philip Reeve’s 2001 YA novel, the first in a quartet that obviously piqued Jackson’s desire to find another potentially profitable, spectacle-driven sci-fi or fantasy series. Apparently, though, someone forgot to tell Jackson or his legion of collaborators at WETA digital and elsewhere.
When we meeting Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), Mortal Engines physically and emotionally scarred protagonist, she’s essentially a passenger on a steam-powered, mobile Bavarian town. In the post-apocalyptic future of Mortal Engines, cities and towns have gone walkabout, roaming vast, undifferentiated wastelands, hunting for resources, including other, smaller cities and towns, in what one character repeatedly calls “municipal Darwinism.” Hester hides in plain site as London, a super- or apex-predator among cities, devours the minor town she briefly called home. The town becomes literal fuel for the fire that keeps London perpetually mobile, while the town’s unkempt, unwashed civilians join London’s teeming underclass. Hester’s attempt on the life of Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), London’s energy minister and apparently the second in command, ends abruptly (no) thanks to Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a London librarian obsessed with Earth’s pre-apocalyptic past. Hester ends up, however, not captured or imprisoned, but literally thrown away with London’s refuse.
Tom joins Hester on her quest, setting up an entirely predictable, yawn-inducing “will they or won’t they?” romantic sub-plot that suffers from limp, uninspired writing and flaccid, uninterested direction. Semi-luckily, the subplot is just that: A time-wasting subplot of minimal consequence (except for the sequel or sequels we’ll never see). In the wastelands, Hester and Tom inadvertently cross paths with human traffickers, before an anti-London, anti-Valentine activist and martial artist, Anna Fang (Jihae), saves them from ending as part of an outlander’s dinnertime meal. Fang sees Valentine for the villainous evil he really is – something Valentine’s blandly naïve daughter and non-romantic interest, Katherine (Leila George), doesn’t, at least not initially – automatically putting Hester and Anna on the same, anti-London side, with Tom naturally along for the ride through the endless ones and zeroes of Jackson and Rivers’ not-quite-convincing CG wastelands.
If nothing else, Mortal Engines doesn’t suffer from a lack of visual imagination. Jackson, Rivers, and their small army of collaborators worked hard to build out the Mortal Engines world, everything from the layer-cake style, mobile cities, to a virtual cloud city (but not, alas, Cloud City), to a spider-inspired, rust-colored metal, seaborne prison and one of the prison’s inmates, Shrike (voiced by Stephan Lang), a so-called “Resurrection Man” who’s more machine than man (hello, shameless Terminator riff). He’s after someone or something involving an unkept promise and he’ll tear down whole towns to get what he wants. Shrike’s pursuit probably counts as one subplot too many. It could have been easily saved for the sequel we’ll never see, lopping off a solid 15-20 minutes from Mortal Engines bloated running time. Then again, the Shrike subplot helps to forestall the inevitable: A half-hour climax involving an ultimate energy weapon (“Deathstar, anyone?”), a potential vulnerability in the power source (“Hello, Star Wars trench run.”), and – borrowing entire chapters, if not an entire book, from J.R.R. Tolkien – an apparently impossible attempt to breach a seemingly impregnable wall and/or fortress. Characters live or die based not on their importance to this particular story, but their potential importance to future sequels.
That leaves us with dialogue (execrable) and performances (passable to awful) to help connect the story dots and make us feel something, anything for the onscreen characters and their respective plights. As Tom, Robert Sheehan resembles Cillian Murphy, but without the edge or hint of danger that Murphy’s brought to roles over the last decade and a half, while the Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar acquits herself relatively well in a badly underwritten role (she’s driven by revenge and … that’s about it), while the remainder of the cast, including Hugo Weaving firmly in paycheck mode, leave practically no impression behind except perhaps as foreground props while Jackson and WETA fill the rest of the over-busy, perpetually crowded screen with an impressive array of CG backgrounds and spectacle-driven action.