Gentlemen, start your “Mortal Engines”! This movie is a bit like a NASCAR race; it has a whole lot of characters, they all move at breakneck speed, they all go around and around in circles and with loud volume – but never seem to get anywhere. When the whole thing is finished, there are no Winners. Especially not the viewer. It has a visually stunning design, with a good number of images that are intricate and precise. It is based on a novel that has a unique concept, where a post-apocalyptic world has huge cities that move and rumble around a barren future landscape.
The ‘city on wheels’ idea shows us a large city that can only sustain and grow by searching out and taking over many smaller cities. The Big City takes over all of the resources, and assigns all the new people to hard labor. There are battles between the little guys and the ‘City of London’, and the big city always wins. This movie has many twists and turns, so there is a lot of potential for an exciting and well-defined film. There is also potential for a big sloppy mess…
Many centuries after the Sixty Minute War, all the people of Earth live in the ‘Traction’ Cities in the Wastelands. Or people lived behind a Shield Wall (in what is now China). The huge, mobile cities are places where remnants of the past remain. in the ‘City of London’, the large number of people are there hoping that the Energy Project that Engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) will finally be working to give them unlimited power. Valentine is thinking of a different type of ‘unlimited power’, but in a different sense.
He works with an historian of the City named Tom (Robert Sheehan). Tom is from the lower class, and he needs Valentine’s help to rise in the ranks. But there is a woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) who has a personal goal to kill Thaddeus Valentine. She almost succeeds, but Hester and Tom both are thrown out of the moving ‘City’. Now they are trapped on foot in the No-Mans-Land. They are picked up for a ‘rescue’ by a nice couple out in the desert in a weird vehicle. But then get taken to Scavenger city to be auctioned off.
Thaddeus Valentine is still in the ‘City’ and he is cooking up some big plans, including finder Hester and killing her. These plans involve a reanimated cyborg named Shrike. This metal monster machine has a death wish for Hester Shaw. Shrike can’t be bargained with. Shrike can’t be reasoned with. Shrike doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And Shrike absolutely will not stop… ever, until you are dead! No, sorry — that’s the Terminator. Well, close enough. So Hester has everyone looking for her and she could be in deep trouble.
Tom and Hester find that the Scavenger auction was interrupted by Anna Fang (Jihae). She is a well-known rebel and the leader of the Anti-Traction League. She hates the moving cities and fights them in every way possible. Anna finds Hester, along with Tom. She rescues the two of them, just as Shrike finds Hester and announces that he will kill her for running away. Because, you see – Hester was raised by the undead cyborg monster man when her mother was killed by Thaddeus Valentine. It’ a complicated relationship… So there is more that happens, and just as scattered and confusing.
This movie ought to have a Bingo card that will allow the viewer to match each scene or idea with another movie. Main villain is actually the Father of the main character? Yup, that would be “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”. High-speed chases and battles as shown in a bleak landscape? “Mad Max: Fury Road”. A deadly cyborg who is conducting an unstoppable quest to find and kill a young woman? “The Terminator”, of course. Far future technology that looks like mid 1890’s Steampunk? How about “The Golden Compass”.
There are some wonderful ideas that could be developed for “Mortal Engines”. The biggest problem is that too much world-building and idea development and background exposition entirely drowns out the main story and any feeling that these are actual people. There is way more emphasis on action than there is on acting. Plus a total overload of motion and just a passing glace to human emotion. This might have worked out quite well as a limited series TV show, say on HBO or Netflix.
But this is big-budget stand-alone movie – perhaps ready to spur on the other movie adaptations of other books. Maybe so, but this first ‘Engine’ has seized up and it is not working…