The apparently ceaseless quest to find another lucrative franchise based on some young adult book series about a dystopian future mostly results in terminally boring movies, but occasionally it produces a picture so goofy and overblown that it can aspire to the status of instant camp. That’s the case with “Mortal Engines,” adapted by Peter Jackson’s crew from the 2001 novel by Philip Reeves, the first in a series of four volumes. Rather than reminding you of “The Lord of the Rings” or even a disappointment like their “Hobbit” trilogy, however, it’s more likely to make you think of a total folly like Luc Besson’s gorgeous but totally wacky “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet”—or, to go back a lot further, of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a masterpiece of design that, in terms of narrative, is pretty nutty.
Like those pictures, “Engines” is for the most part visually astonishing. True, the great weapon unleashed in the final act, with all its towers spouting spurts of electrical energy, is a disappointment, reminiscent of that unveiled by villain Robert Vaughn in “Superman III” way back in 1983. (Come to think of it, the prune-faced woman managing its “on” button hearkens back to that movie, too.)
Otherwise, however, the picture is meticulously fashioned, from the look of the intricately layered cityscapes to that of the elegant airships. Most notable of all, though, is Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang), a lumbering robot with glowing green eyes into which the consciousness of a dead man has been implanted—a truly striking embodiment of what is at one point referred to as a Lazarus being. Unfortunately, all the dazzling CGI work is in the service of a story that is, to put it charitably, ludicrous, and characters that are little better than stock figures, flatly played.
The premise is that the earth has been rendered a dying, depleted planet as a result of a long-ago cataclysm vaguely remembered as the Sixty Minute War. What’s left behind are a bunch of mobile cities and towns that move across the desolate landscape like huge tractors. In what’s called Municipal Darwinism, some are predators that gobble up others to seize their resources and turn their inhabitants into servile workers; the largest of these is London, which in the opening sequence is shown rumbling after a modestly-sized “Bavarian mining town,” which after a chase it catches and drags into its huge loading dock for disassembling. (The film will eventually reveal that there remains a near-paradisiacal alternative to these “Traction Cities,” an enclave behind a huge, well-fortified wall and governed by some sort of eastern guru, which also houses rebels belonging to what’s called the Anti-Traction League; but in the early going its existence is not mentioned.)
London is ruled by an imperious mayor (Patrick Malahide) decked out in a scarlet tunic, but its major player is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a scientist trumpeted for his work trying to find a permanent power source for the city. To that end he collects whatever shards of “old technology” he can find—a process that makes him a figure that young Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a lowly apprentice archeologist at the city museum, holds in awe. The museum houses artifacts of the pre-war period (like Minion statuettes taken, in one of the film’s few real jokes, to be renderings of gods), which draws Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George) there for study.
While the three are conversing in the city’s corridors, a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) attempts to assassinate Valentine, making a cryptic remark about her mother. Tom chases her, but she jumps down a garbage chute to the planet’s surface; and when Valentine reaches him and Tom admits that he heard her accusation, Thaddeus pushes him down the chute too. The encounter is witnessed by Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery), a mechanic who knows both Tom and Katherine.
From here the plot spins off in several related directions. Tom and Hester aim to survive on the desolate planet, desperately seeking to avoid scavengers and slave traders; they are eventually rescued from the latter by Anna Fang (Jihae), a kick-ass pilot in the Anti-Traction League, though not before Shrike makes his appearance, implacably stalking Hester with threats concerning a promise she once made him. Meanwhile it is revealed that what Valentine is actually building is a terrifying weapon based on ancient quantum technology, with which he intends to destroy the wall protecting the enclave ruled by Governor Kwan (Kee Chan), where the League is based; Katherine and Bevis join forces to investigate what he’s up to.
Meanwhile flashbacks reveal the connections between not only Hester and Thaddeus but between him and her mother Pandora (Caron Pistorius). They also detail why Shrike is after Hester, played in her earlier years by Poppy Macleod. Much of this is fairly perfunctory exposition, but the back-story of Shrike is actually rather poignant—indeed, by the time the robot’s story ends, one might find him a far more human character than the flesh-and-blood ones he interacts with.
That’s because under the heavy hand of Christian Rivers, a visual effects specialist making his directorial debut who—perhaps understandably in view of his background—seems more interested in the CGI backgrounds than the humans acting in front of them, the cast do not make a very favorable impression. Hilmar, Sheehan, George and Raftery are a pallid quartet of heroes; Sheehan’s attempt to play geeky and awkward before morphing into a valiant flyboy is especially embarrassing. Weaving turns on a dime from smooth to snarling with well-practiced but boring predictability, while Jihae and her colleagues in the League strut about in heroic poses but otherwise offer little of interest.
The backgrounds that all of them, and the other human players, appear in front of are, however, striking to behold, a testament to the dedication of production designer Dan Hennah, costume designer Bob Buck, cinematographer Simon Raby, and the army of effects wizards in Jackson’s employ. Even they grow tiresome after awhile, though, especially since the editing (by Jonno Woodford-Robinson) keeps to a funereal pace, probably to allow you to savor the visuals —and so does Tom Holkenborg’s score.
The ennui hits hard in the prolonged finale, an aerial assault on Valentine’s monstrous weapon that’s basically an industrial age variant of the attack on the Death Star in “A New Hope.” It seems to go on forever—like the whole movie.
There is good news, however, in the fact that the narrative ends conclusively, without the typical tent pole cliffhanger. Reeves’s books continue the story, but Jackson’s series can forego future installments, and undoubtedly will.