Just as the wastelands of this post-apocalypse dystopia are littered with the bleached bones of fallen cities, the red ink ledgers of the movie business are full of one-off adaptations of YA s-f/fantasy that wanted to be the next Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games … and even the Divergent or Maze Runner sagas, which did run to completion, have a vague, disappointing, easy-to-get-mixed-up feel. Consider – The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures, Cirque du Freak, City of Ember, The Giver … and now Mortal Engines, from the novels by Philip Reeve, which even stars Mortal Instruments veteran Robert Sheehan, who risks getting a reputation as a franchise-scuppering jonah.
Scripted by the Rings team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and producer Peter Jackson and directed by Jackson’s long-term associate Christian Rivers, this has a steampunky premise but does only the most obvious things with it – and suffers from J.K.Rowling Silly Name Syndrome, with characters called Tom Natsworthy, Bevis Pod, Chudleigh Pomeroy, Herbert Melliphant and Dr Twix. In the future, cities have transformered themselves into giant rolling vehicles – and London is a ‘predator city’, tracking and sacking smaller rolling towns for booty, and trundling across Asia towards a settled civilisation which is in peril, though the film is not much interested in them. The plot is motored by glowering Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who has recovered an ancient superweapon and mounted it inside the dome of St Paul’s with the intent of using it to blast the protective wall of Shen Guo so the world beyond can be plundered.
Scarfaced Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) wants revenge on Valentine for murdering her mother but is thwarted by assistant curator Tom (Sheehan), and they both get shoved off the city … so they wander round a wilderness that feels a lot like the one in the wrong Judge Dredd movie, getting mixed up with standard dystopian crews of scavengers, slavers, cannibals and rebels, with the complication that zombie cyborg Shrike (Stephen Lang) is after them, obsessed with reclaiming his surrogate daughter Hester and transforming her into a meat-hung terminator. Meanwhile, Valentine’s nice daughter (Leila George) worries her father has gone too far – and the climax hinges on a plot device lampooned as a ‘goober’ (a flash-drive that handily shuts down a doomsday device) in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the film I saw that morning.
The look of the mobile cities is interesting and Gilliamish, with bits and pieces of London scrambled onto a Moorcockian land leviathan. Its inhabitants wear archaic beefeater or London bobby helmets, plus a scarlet-robed Lord Mayor (Patrick Malahide). I was reminded a bit of the space ark Great Britain in a Doctor Who episode, but somehow that had more satirical bite. This just looks impressive. We also get a floating balloon city for the aerial rebels, where anti-tractionist Anna Fang (Jihae) and her multiracial pilots hang out – which goes down in flames twenty minutes after Hester shows up with Shrike trailing behind. The issue here is tone: it’s willfully eccentric in its look, but thuddingly literal in its plot … and all the silly names and imaginative costumes and earnest looks in the world can’t make these characters any more interesting.