Abil­ity

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Tom, whose pri­mary qual­i­fi­ca­tion to be the film’s pro­tag­o­nist ap­pears to be his in­nate abil­ity to take the most baf­fling and fool­hardy course of ac­tion at al­most every turn, gives chase, pur­su­ing Hester through a deadly maze of spin­ning gears and blades. He catches up to her, but the two are promptly thrown down a garbage shoot by Thad­deus, wast­ing no time in lay­ing his vil­lain cards on the ta­ble. Now stranded in the mid­dle of the waste­land, the pair form an odd-cou­ple part­ner­ship as they try to evade roam­ing lowlifes and make their way back to the city. Mean­while in London, Thad­deus pur­sues a plan to build some sort of mys­te­ri­ous su­per-weapon, while Kather­ine and a scruffy lo­cal me­chanic, un­promis­ingly named Be­vis Pod (Ro­nan Raftery), try to get to the bot­tom of it.

Thad­deus, ea­ger to ap­pre­hend Hester and Tom be­fore they can thwart his evil plot, dis­patches a half­ma­chine-half-zom­bie crea­ture named Shrike (Stephen Lang) to track and kill them, and it’s here that the film fi­nally and truly goes fly­ing off the rails. It’s not just that Shrike stalks the earth like a lum­ber­ing Boris Karloff par­ody, nor is it that his name bears an un­for­tu­nate sonic re­sem­blance to “Shrek!” when it’s screamed out loud in ter­ror, but the crea­ture also has a com­pli­cated back­story with Hester that takes up a good deal of the film’s mid­dle third. This re­viewer has not read the source ma­te­rial, and per­haps their re­la­tion­ship makes some sort of sense therein, but it would have taken some in­cred­i­bly deft han­dling to make Shrike’s story hit the emo­tional beats it’s sup­posed to hit on­screen. Here it misses by a mile.

The film never re­ally re­cov­ers, but then lit­tle about it sug­gests it was head­ing to­ward solid ground any­way. For all its flashy dig­i­tal scene-set­ting, “Mor­tal En­gines” is rarely ca­pa­ble of stag­ing im­pact­ful se­quences within that scenery, and at­tempts to draw broad par­al­lels to Brexit and Trump’s fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion pol­icy fall quite flat. After crib­bing from “Mad Max,” “Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle,” “BioShock In­fi­nite,” and “The Ter­mi­na­tor” through­out, the film fi­nally throws up its hands and goes full “Star Wars” for its desul­tory fi­nale, hur­riedly in­tro­duc­ing a band of rebel pi­lots called the Anti-Trac­tion League, led by no­to­ri­ous out­law Anna Fang (Ji­hae, at­tempt­ing to con­vey badassery by holding a sin­gle fa­cial ex­pres­sion for the en­tire film).

You cer­tainly can’t ac­cuse Rivers of un­due sub­tlety, with every emo­tion di­aled up to 11 at all times, matched for vol­ume by Junkie XL’s max­i­mal­ist, om­nipresent score. But the film never cap­tures the bonkers, go-for­broke en­ergy that made the ill-fated likes of “Cloud At­las” or “Va­le­rian and the City of a Thou­sand Plan­ets” such en­joy­able noble fail­ures, too caught up in hit­ting the same old block­buster beats to stop and won­der where the story’s weirder threads might have lead. It’s hard not to think back to that open­ing scene, as yet an­other in­ter­est­ing, funky prop­erty is gob­bled up by a lum­ber­ing fran­chise film­mak­ing em­pire that doesn’t know quite what to do with it.

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