Something is awry with a film when its most interesting role is the zombie robot side character with faded memories of his past life. He must, unfortunately, state the obvious in this giant clunker of a young adult epic while he examines a toy: “It has no heart. Like me!” This is the case with Mortal Engines, which cakes on so much giant fantasy with its big cities and unique aircraft that its personality is microscopic by comparison.
In a postapocalyptic future, the remnants of mankind have found many mechanical means of survival. Cities have now been formed as massive tanks that scour the landscape and plunder resources, and the biggest one with the biggest treads reigns supreme. The most massive predator roaming around is London, assembled from many landmarks and chugging along with the most impressive treads and most elaborate of structures. Hugo Weaving plays the secretly evil Thaddeus Valentine, a historian of the mobile London who has taken a great interest in the weapons that quickly made the world crumble. If he can reactivate this destructive tech, maybe he can replace the city’s grumpy mayor (Patrick Malahide).
Thaddeus, however, is very sloppy with his secrets and has a tough time covering up the evidence of all his mad murder. He has a long-lost daughter, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who hasn’t forgot her last encounter with dad, which left a nasty scar on her cheek. She wants revenge and ends up going onto a journey along which she will gather allies for her attack, including the nervous and cowering Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan). Will a romance form between them? Of course it will, but, much like everything else in this movie, it comes more by cold design than warm growth.
There’s no time for their relationship to build when there’s far too much else going on. The cities are targeted by an anti–moving city organization whose rebel leader, Anna Fang (Jihae), looks more like a fashion model from the 1980s with her big hair, bright red jacket, and stylish sunglasses. This secret faction resides in a giant balloon society in the clouds, far out of range of the mobile cities but still quite dangerous considering one good stomp could send you falling to your death. A giant wall in Asian territory is all that prevents London from smashing through and plundering their resources. The above-mentioned robot zombie, Shrike (Stephen Lang), raised Hester after she fled her father and pursues her, Terminator style, when she dips out on a promise. There’s also some pathos with Hester’s family and some ambition within the standardly plucky Tom.
Based on the novel by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines has a bad case of “Wait, what?” syndrome as it tries to cram material from the book onto the big screen. There are many scenes where characters we are meant to care about randomly pop up, backstories come out of the woodwork as busywork for the characters amid the landscape, and people instantly adopt the skills they need. How does Tom learn to pilot so quickly despite his lack of training in such a short amount of time? How did Hester’s mom knowingly give her daughter a MacGuffin? I could nitpick at least a dozen of these scenes, but there’s no point, as there are bigger problems than issues of continuity. The film is a lumbering fantasy that is a far cry from producer Peter Jackson’s quainter WingNut films. I thought back to how his first film, Bad Taste, was a sci-fi/horror/comedy shot on a shoestring budget but still had some personality and cleverness. Mortal Engines (directed by Christian Rivers) boasts a budget of over $100 million, and it feels like all of it went into creating a world as cold and rusty as its characters, who serve as mere cogs in the old adventure machine.