'Mortal Engines': Film Review

Underheated steampunk sci-fi.

Peter Jackson produced and co-wrote this post-apocalyptic story based on the young adult novels by Philip Reeve.

A fantastical bit of steampunk sci-fi runs to a considerable extent on fumes in Mortal Engines, an action-loaded tale of adventure and combat set in a future that takes its design cues entirely from the past. Based on the initial book in a series of four by British author Philip Reeve, the first of them published in 2001, this new effort by Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films is certainly lavish and expensive looking but never thoroughly locks in to capture the imagination or sweep you off to a new world where you particularly want to spend time. It's combat-heavy, but not in an especially enthralling way, spelling an uncertain commercial future in the U.S. at least; foreign results could be significantly better.

One thing the film does have going for it is a resilient female lead, Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), a survivor of childhood violence compelled to take revenge on her mother's killer. Another is a bizarre form of conquest that's illustrated in the extensive opening action sequence, in which one mobile society — in this case, a condensed version of London — races on giant treads across a rough wasteland in pursuit of a smaller, rag-tag community in order to literally gobble it up. There's a milder, less demented Mad Max quality to the set-piece that decidedly rivets the attention, even if the sheer physics of it seem more than a bit preposterous; it's akin to a huge garbage truck consuming a lawn mower.

What the mobile community of the new London is fixated upon some 1700 years in the future seems to be the design elements of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, mixed with the ability to achieve high-speed traction across rough landscapes and excellent industrial digestion that allows the assimilation of desired old landmarks; the result looks like a rugged theme park hodgepodge. Slipping through the mayhem is the hooded Hester, who has disfiguring scars on her left cheek and chin and gets close enough to London big shot Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) to stab him as she says, “This is for my mum,” although she can't finish him off.

Through the frenetic mayhem we also meet Thaddeus' blonde twentysomething daughter Katherine (Leila George) and Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a handsome young eager beaver and apprentice historian who attaches his fate to that of loner-style Hester.

What quickly sets Mortal Engines apart from the general run of modern sci-fi/fantasy franchises is its devotion to low, rather than high, tech. This is not a world in which people can just jab a bunch of buttons to make things happen or perform superhuman feats, nor one in which things can just transform on a whim or characters transport themselves somewhere by snapping their fingers. Rather than feeling like a modern sci-fi/fantasy film, it more often reminds of a beautifully rendered, historically set video game, in which itinerant communities are separated by great distances that must be traversed on foot.

Which is what happens, for a time, with Hester and Tom. Hester, who for untold reasons sports an American accent, is a hard case, dedicated only to revenge and uninterested in a partner. The puppy dog-ish Tom, who lost both his parents, just keeps enthusing and helping out, to the point where she can hardly resist his assistance to her cause.

At length, the film assumes the form of a pursuit drama that will assuredly climax with the showdown the heroine has been pursuing from the beginning. The interim is filled with an assortment of imaginatively conceived but only superficially presented secondary characters who have based themselves in a distant Asian land that has largely eluded the attention of the Londoners until now — most notably kick-butt, fashionably turned-out pilot Anna Fang (Jihae).

At the same time, the duo is pursued by a robotic stalker named Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang), whose imposing initial menace is gradually transformed into something more nuanced as his connection with Hester is clarified.

In short, it's a long-arc revenge tale fitted out with very elaborate effects, courtesy of Weta Digital, and characters that are moderately decent company but hardly compelling. The latter can even be applied to Weaving's villain, who has manifestly done very bad things but lacks the grand and demented qualities one normally looks for in a sci-fi villain. Everyone else is pretty darn nice in this wild and yet civilized world.

Even the physically ravaged, revenge-driven and psychologically obsessed Hester begins behaving in a reasonable manner after a while, evidently buoyed by the determinedly upbeat attitude of her traveling partner. Not for the first time is the ancient serenity of an Eastern culture held up as a positive contrast to an obsessive, war-minded West.

Jackson wrote the adaptation with longtime collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, while the direction was entrusted to Christian Rivers, who for 25 years has worked for Jackson in various special-effects capacities. He's done a more than competent job, but while there's plenty to look at on the screen, there's little to excite the senses or stimulate the imagination. Whether there are to be three more sequels is up to the public.

(Mortal Engines is produced by MRC. MRC is a division of Valence Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.)

Production company: Wingnut Films
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang
Director: Christian Rivers
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, based on the book by Philip Reeve
Producers: Zane Weiner, Amanda Walker, Deborah Forte, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Executive producers: Philippa Boyens, Ken Kamins
Director of photography: Simon Raby
Production designer: Dan Hennah
Costume designer: Bob Buck
Editor: Jonno Woodford-Robinson
Music: Tom Hokenborg
Casting: Amy Hubbard

Rated PG-13, 129 minutes