Peter Jackson may have helped build the parts of Mortal Engines, but he didn't go so far as to take the director's wheel.
That's why any assumptions that Mortal Engines, in theaters worldwide now, is a young-adult Lord of the Rings are best left at home.
First-time director Christian Rivers is a long-time mentee of Jackson, conjuring masterful visual effects on just about all of Jackson's films. But in taking on a script co-written and produced by Jackson, Rivers must face the director's task of wrangling a vast cast of characters, CGI and all the world building a dark and grungy steampunk dystopia demands.
In this case, less would have been more.
Adding to the long list of young adult dystopias, Mortal Engines is set in a society built in the aftermath of a nuclear-type bomb. Just like The Hunger Games and Divergent series, people are divided by class and resources are running out. They survive in unconventional cities that move around on massive steamroller wheels.
In what must be the weirdest opening of a young adult movie yet, London, in this world a huge, creaky beast of a machine a la Howl's Moving Castle, chases after a small Bavarian mining city. It opens a mouth-like hatch, swallows the city and its people and takes their fuel.
What follows is over two hours crammed with as many cogs and screws of material sourced from Philip Reeve's novel. Hugo Weaving plays the villainous historian Valentine with an understated menace. Robert Sheehan plays big-hearted protagonist Tom, a young historian who collects "old tech." In this world that includes the latest iPhones, which have smashed screens of course.
References to this "old tech" draw a few wry nods, but Mortal Engines lacks a connection to its characters. They pop in and out of the story as we lurch between locations.
The plot is standard. There's a grand plan brewing to rebuild the tech that destroyed the world in the first place. Words and phrases like "Tractionist", "Infusion converter cell" and "Stabilise the isotopes" add smog to a story of villains and heroes that brings few surprises.
And that's strange, given the originality of Mortal Engines' high concept. The CGI of Mortal Engines is bland, too, despite Rivers' credentials in the visual medium. The huge machines should have been wonders to look at. Instead they feel cluttered and difficult to parse, bogging down the relentless action.
It's the quiet moments you end up looking forward to. In flashbacks that take cues from Lord of the Rings and its haunting choral soundtrack, we see betrayal, strange pseudo-parents and mysterious artefacts. But they only end up highlighting the soullessness of anything taking place in the present timeline.
Hester Shaw, played by a stoic Hera Hilmar, offers a sympathetic viewpoint among the cast of good and evil characters. But the assassin's quest for revenge is weighed down by larger events. Her and Tom's escape sequences come off cheaply. It's no surprise when our heroes are saved at the last.
It takes a while to see through the haze to understand what values Mortal Engines offers its young adult audience. A running motif of one character extending their hand to take another's in a show of reconciliation and harmony, almost comes together in the final act. But it's hard to tell amid the biggest explosions of the movie.
A long road trip that leaves you queasy at journey's end, Mortal Engines falls into the pitfalls of book-to-movie adaptations. Too much exposition, too many characters and too many explosions will have you driving elsewhere.
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