Mortal Engines is a surprisingly fitting name for what is, hopefully, the last tired attempt at a YA dystopian franchise starter to cough and sputter its way into theaters. Like most of the others, it takes place in a distant future where people talk pretty much the same way we do now except they have kind of funny names (Magnus Crome! Dr. Twix!) and it’s up to a young person and their friends to topple an unjust, authoritarian system. Our familiarity with the formula is, tragically, only part of the reason the movie feels like it’s a hundred hours long.
This time around, we drop in more than a millennium after our present day. The cities and towns of Europe have gone mobile, becoming huge, fossil fuel-driven contraptions on which the citizenry lives and works. Smaller towns drive around Europe mining what they can from the soil while the larger, “predator” cities hunt them down and strip them of resources. One such city is London, where the lead historian, Thaddeus Valentine (another funny name!), played by Hugo Weaving, has designs on increasing the firepower and dominance of his moving metropolis. However, a young woman with a personal vendetta, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), seeks to take him down. To do so, she teams up with an apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) and, eventually, an increasingly indistinct band of rebels.
That’s just an economical description of the story. There’s actually much more. Way too much, in fact, as evidenced by the lengths of time Mortal Engines has to devote to explaining itself. Even after the opening narration, most of the first act seems to be taken up by dialogue that fills in the gaps of how the world came to be this way and the specific rules of daily life within it. Those bits are broken up by the occasional massive and noisy visual effects sequence and then we return to exposition. Yet even with all the tab-keeping the movie seems to be doing, it’s still inconsistent. It’s dangerous for two people on foot to build a fire out in the wild because a scavenger town might find them but it is apparently okay for a seemingly undefended village to drive around with its crazy big headlights on.
That’s just nitpicking, though. That kind of laziness is more than acceptable in a movie that excels where it counts. But Mortal Engines doesn’t do that either. Whatever class critique allegories are present, they are thousandth generation copies; the movie’s London is an uninspired blend of Metropolis and Titanic, with various classes assigned to literal “tiers.” Any attempts to reach beyond that are clumsy and potentially offensive. When London captures a salt-mining town, the townsfolk are warned by an offscreen voice via loudspeaker that children may be separated from their parents, a line that could very well have been added only recently to address real life events. Later, Hester and Tom will be put up for bid in a slave auction. Because of the superficiality of these representations of actual events, they are tasteless where director Christian Rivers and screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson might imagine they are poignant.
These feints at, I suppose, social consciousness also ring hollow when stacked alongside the movie’s patronizing, backwards Orientalism. Valentine’s ultimate target is the verdant land beyond the “Shield Wall,” which separates Europe from a peaceful society of Asian people who have not pillaged and polluted their own homes. On the plus side, though, this condescending characterization at least helps distinguish some individuals from others, something the flat, homogenous, humorless screenplay is otherwise unable to accomplish.
Rivers matches the script with a color palette that is as dull as the rest of the movie and a sense of framing that feels haphazard more often than not. I would call Mortal Engines the most stupefyingly wrongheaded post-apocalyptic movie since Kevin Costner’s The Postman but I fear its unrelenting drabness makes it even worse.