Only a filmmaker as talented as Peter Jackson could produce a film as bad as Mortal Engines. No one else could have gathered the massive budget and marshaled the craftsman necessary to mount a film that is so epic in scope, all while protecting it from meddling executives wanting (quite rightly, in this case) to iron out the kinks in its story, characters, and casting. On some abstract level you have to respect someone with the vision to put such a thing into the world — even if the end result is a literal flaming pile of junk.

In Mortal Engines terms, Jackson is basically Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a brilliant, power-mad bureaucrat determined to take control of the “traction city” of London no matter the cost. Even after it’s become clear to everyone — including to Valentine himself — that his plan is apocalyptically suicidal, he keeps right on trucking in his giant roving municipality. Valentine and his fellow Londoners live in a distant future hundreds of years after something called the “60 Minute War,” when foolish men in the age of “The Ancients” (i.e. our present) detonated a series of quantum energy weapons and destroyed the world. The film doesn’t reveal exactly who or what caused the conflict, but my guess, given the war’s name, is Lesley Stahl.

Somehow, centuries later, the planet is now a desolate place where cities can transform, Optimus Prime-style, and roam the landscape in the search for resources. It seems like the most impractical ecosystem possible — especially since this society also has magical flying airships that can get you places much more quickly (not to mention with far less waste of precious natural resources). But who am I to argue with a concept that’s sold thousands of young-adult novels?


It’s easy to see why the material appealed to the producer and writer in Jackson — it’s another massive fantasy world like Lord of the Rings to build and explore onscreen — and why readers were drawn to it in novel form. On the page, there is more space to burrow into the details of this dystopia, plus more space to let your imagination run wild envisioning these traction cities. Onscreen, the cities look a little silly, and there’s almost no time to consider how people would truly live in this bizarre place because every single second of the Mortal Engines movie is dedicated to explaining its creaky plot.

Valentine’s primary opponent is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who’s sworn vengeance against him because of a mysterious incident in their shared past. Hester winds up allied with Tom (Robert Sheehan) a humble historian from the lower decks of London (think Snowpiercer, without the trenchant social satire or wicked sense of humor). Tom uncovers a conspiracy that could destroy London but before he can expose it, he’s tossed off the city with Hester, so the two must fight for survival in the besotted wilderness of this ruined world.

Other than Weaving, who’s suitably evil, and Jihae, who at least strikes a dashing figure as a swashbuckling pilot who’s key to Mortal Engine’s final act, the cast is as disposable as the scrap metal Valentine’s goons collects from the rogue towns London ingests. Poor Sheehan spends the entire movie beneath a ridiculous wig, and Leila George has the thankless role of Valentine’s daughter Katherine, who’s established as maybe the third-most-important character and then vanishes completely for the second half of the film. I genuinely wondered if she had died, and I had been so bored I somehow missed it shortly before she finally returned for the last couple scenes.


Perhaps Mortal Engines stans will derive some amount of pleasure from this adaptation, and can explain to the rest of us in about why we should care about any of these people. Director Christian Rivers, a longtime Jackson collaborator, comes from a visual effects background, and the ones in Mortal Engines are believable enough. His grip on the human side of the picture, however, remains mighty shaky. There’s also a moment so brazenly stolen from the Star Wars films that I half-expected Hugo Weaving to throw on a Darth Vader costume and start slashing people with a lightsaber afterwards.

As Mortal Engines dragged through its mind-numbing final action sequence, and I felt absolutely nothing about whether any of the characters lived or died, I wondered: When was the last time I saw a movie this big that was also this lifeless? Crappy movies happen all the time, but rarely on the scale of Mortal Engines. The only one that came to mind was Battlefield Earth, another dystopian science-fiction extravaganza with a bloated mythology and a turgid plotline. Mortal Engines is better than Battlefield Earth, but not by that much. I never would have thought I could get so little amusement out of a film where Hugo Weaving dramatically intones nonsense like “Prepare to ingest!”

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