By An­drew Barker

Arab Times - - NEWS/FEATURES -

For the first 10 min­utes of dystopian sci-fi saga “Mor­tal En­gines,” a bless­edly en­joy­able in­ter­val be­fore you start to re­al­ize just what a long slog you have in store, di­rec­tor Chris­tian Rivers stages a most un­usual chase se­quence. In this chase, the pur­sued is a small mo­bile min­ing town called Salthook, con­structed to fold it­self up like a hy­draulic steam­punk Trans­former and drive away at the first sign of dan­ger. The pur­suer is the city of London, mounted on 200-foot-tall tank treads and re­ar­ranged into a team­ing ver­ti­cal mon­stros­ity, with St Paul’s Cathe­dral on top, and the London Eye re­pur­posed as a sort of spin­ning sub­way trans­port­ing ci­ti­zens from one tier of town to an­other.

The film, based on the first in­stall­ment of Philip Reeve’s four-novel YA series, is set sev­eral cen­turies in the fu­ture, after a calami­tous war has turned the planet into a bar­ren waste­land, leav­ing gi­ant mo­bile “preda­tor cities” to lit­er­ally roam the earth at­tack­ing and sub­sum­ing poor towns and vil­lages in a process the film calls “Mu­nic­i­pal Dar­win­ism.” After a pur­suit, London in­evitably con­quers the help­less ham­let to plun­der its re­sources and con­sign its in­hab­i­tants to low-level jobs. It’s an in­ter­est­ing se­quence, and it’s also not a bad metaphor for late-stage cap­i­tal­ism. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s also the last time “Mor­tal En­gines” dis­plays any­thing rec­og­niz­able as wit or dra­matic in­ven­tion, as the movie de­volves from promis­ing to un­wieldy, then baf­fling, then ex­haust­ing, then fi­nally un­in­ten­tion­ally hys­ter­i­cal.

Here mak­ing his di­rec­to­rial de­but, Rivers spent years as a sto­ry­board artist and a vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor for Peter Jack­son (who pro­duced this film and wrote the screen­play along­side Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), and he’s in­her­ited a good deal of his long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor’s love for mythic world-build­ing and hy­per­real CGI spec­ta­cle. He’s gleaned lit­tle of Jack­son’s fa­cil­ity with ac­tors or char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, how­ever, and “Mor­tal En­gines” starts to sput­ter as soon as we’re in­tro­duced to our drama­tis per­sonae. Shaggy-haired and hap­less, Tom Natswor­thy (Robert Sheehan) is an ap­pren­tice at the Mu­seum of London, spe­cial­iz­ing in the tech­nol­ogy of “the an­cients” – in other words, us. His tal­ents at­tract the at­ten­tion of the im­pe­ri­ous Thad­deus Valen­tine (Hugo Weav­ing), a vaguely pop­ulist author­ity fig­ure with an un­usual in­ter­est in col­lect­ing rusted 21st cen­tury flash drives and ap­pli­ances. The two men soon find them­selves to­gether in the bow­els of the wheeled city, sort­ing through Salthook’s bric-a-brac along­side Thad­deus’ daugh­ter Kather­ine (Leila Ge­orge), when a masked young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hil­mar) emerges from a crowd of refugees. “This is for my mother,” she yells, and stabs Thad­deus, non-fa­tally.

Rivers

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