By Andrew Barker
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.