I propose a Museum of Cinematic Insufficiency. A place devoted to the most overhyped pictures (Argo, First Man), the most puzzlingly still-employed performers (Gerard Butler, Sam Worthington), things like that. Naturally, there would also be a hall dedicated to Fizzled Franchise Launchers—movies concocted at ridiculous expense in the hope of spawning multiple sequels, but which instead hit a wall of public indifference and crumple to the ground. You know: The Last Airbender, John Carter, The Golden Compass. And now…
I don't want to say the new Mortal Engines is a witless classic along the lines of those films. It has some energy and some memorable images. If only it had more of those things, and less of all the clutter and noise that otherwise distinguish it.
This is not a Peter Jackson movie, if that's what you may have thought. It's a Peter Jackson-adjacent movie, adapted by the hobbity auteur and his longtime collaborators, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens, from a fantasy novel—the first in a series of four—by Philip Reeve. The project was then passed off to Jackson protégé Christian Rivers, who won an Oscar for the effects work on his mentor's 2005 King Kong and is here presenting us with his first feature. He is a master of digital animation, for sure—although by the time this movie shuffles past the two-hour mark, you're not likely to care much about that anymore.
The story, which is rather complicated and heavily bedecked with exposition, is set in yet another of those post-apocalyptic dystopias that looks like 200 miles of bad road stretched out under a blazing outland sun (we're in New Zealand, of course). This is all that's left after a "Sixty Minute War" trashed the planet 1100 years ago. In the centuries since then, humankind has somehow (but how?) managed to take whole major cities—London is the "traction city" we're concerned with here—and mount them on tank treads and then drive them around the dismal flatlands in search of other cities to eat. Or, more precisely, to suck into huge mechanical maws and strip of their assets. ("Old tech" is especially prized, particularly "weapons grade," although ancient broken toasters and cracked iPhones are also happily scarfed up and set out for display in the British Museum—which is of course right on board).
Apart from Jackson regular Hugo Weaving—here playing Thaddeus Valentine, a science bigwig who conducts mysterious experiments in St. Paul's Cathedral, high atop the giant London-mobile—the rest of the cast is relatively little-known. Which is okay, since most of the characters they play are shuffled around so briskly they have virtually no room to register. Valentine has a bland daughter on whom he dotes (Leila George), but she and her boyfriend/buddy/whatever, the oddly monikered Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery), are pure pudding, and offer little support for the movie's central couple, an obscurely motivated young interloper named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and annoyingly puppylike museum historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan). Hilmar, whose character is intent on killing Valentine for some reason, has a fresh, spunky energy; but Sheehan is a young actor of very little charisma, which leaves a large hole at the center of the movie.
Fortunately, there are two memorable characters. One is a towering robo-killer called Shrike (an unrecognizable Stephen Lang), who has a bizarre and long-running relationship with Hester and in the end brings some unexpected heart to the proceedings. The other is an exotic air pirate named Anna Fang (South Korean pop musician Jihae), who in her zero-cool shades and the fabulous crimson plane she docks at a hovering sky city, strongly recalls the 2004 sci-fi mini-classic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (a movie I'd recommend before recommending this one).
As a work of action filmmaking, the picture isn't a lot more than the sum of its appropriations: the Mad Max overtones, the Miyazaki echoes, the Star Wars references all over the place. It's also over-stuffed with instructional dialogue. Contemplating Earth's golden-age civilization of yore and its present-day ruin, one character says, "How can a society so advanced be so stupid?" Says another, "What have we done?" Says a third, possibly confused, "We should never have gone to Europe."