I liked “Mortal Engines,” the new steampunk fantasy tale written and produced by the once-great Peter Jackson. I say “once-great” because he’s dug himself into a green-screen-covered hell of terrible adaptations and absolute misfires since winning the Oscar for Best Director back in 2003. It’s been 15 years since he unleashed the final film in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Return of the King,” and completed the single greatest film series ever released. He spent the last decade-and-a-half trying to call his level of genius into question with three terrible attempts at adapting “The Hobbit” and an adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” that features way too many unintentionally hilarious scenes for a movie about murdering a teenage girl.
This is a movie that requires a quick stamp of approval before dissecting what didn’t work, which is going to take up more real estate in this review. The movie’s greatest failing is how much it feels like a retelling of “Star Wars.” There are clear differences, sure, including some really interesting (but painfully brief) world-building with mind-blowing visual sequences. Boiled down: it’s “Star Wars,” complete with its own Death Star-assault sequence and a kid fighting an evil father for the fate of the world.
“Mortal Engines” opens with its most impressive sequence, as we learn 1,000 years in the future, the world has been decimated by quantum weapons. It has left the remaining people to build gigantic tank-like cities which roar through the landscape. The city of London is a towering collection of architecture placed atop a set of city-sized treads, which tear through the earth. Run by the charismatically evil Valentine (Hugo Weaving), London chases down a small motorized mining town and eventually swallows it whole and reduces it all to rubble.
The movie peaks 6 minutes in.
Valentine has an evil plan—actually, more like the same evil plan most world/galaxy conquerors have: Get your hands on a ridiculously overpowered super weapon and use it to see your enemies grovel before you and hear the lamentations of their women. One woman in particular, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), doesn’t care for the plan and wants to brutally murder Valentine for killing her mother. After her assassination attempt fails, Hester ends up having to team up with a well-intentioned historian (Robert Sheehan) and join a spunky rebellion to help take down the city of London before it’s too late.
“Mortal Engines” feels like a young-adult “Star Wars.” There’s a little more focus on romance and feelings. The central character is actually better developed than Luke Skywalker. I liked Hester, and it’s the main reason I ended up enjoying the movie. Even though most of her connections to the blockbuster trope-laden world are redundant as hell, the character manages to have an interesting subplot that offers the most emotionally entertaining thread in a messy, uninspired narrative. The plot involves a mechanical surrogate father who wants to strip her of emotions and humanity, and transform her into a soulless machine. “Mortal Engines” needed more fantasy elements like this, instead of the steampunk “Star Wars” plot engulfing the second half of the movie.
In spite of some real lazy storytelling, there are likable elements at play here. I was interested in learning more about the world. They lay down a wonderful foundation of awesome before diverting into a screenplay so hackneyed it could have been hammered out by anyone who’s seen “Star Wars,” read the first three chapters of Robert McKee’s “Story” and has easy access to psilocybin mushrooms.
I’m not sure why every blockbuster has to have family members both heroic and villainous. Remember when you learned Darth Vader was Luke’s father? Didn’t it feel novel 30 years ago? Now, it’s practically a prerequisite. The reveal is meaningless.
Even after this long-winded rant, I still found enough fragments of “Mortal Engines” to recommend giving it a go. The deflating aspect is how much better it could have been with a story that fulfilled the promise of this crazy world they’ve created. All I kept thinking: This is the most interesting story they could tell in a world where cities drive around like tanks battling one another?’
It’s an imperfect engine that could have used a little fine tuning.