For the first half hour or so, the Peter Jackson-produced steampunk adventure Mortal Engines is beautifully freaky popcorn bliss. It’s like a YA Mad Max as directed by Terry Gilliam during his wiggy Time Bandits/Brazil phase. Without too much fanfare or explanation, we are immediately plopped down in a post-apocalyptic future where what’s left of humanity live on towering moving cities propelled on rusty treads and giant steel wheels. They barrel through the barren wastelands like pirate frigates hunting for rival mobile-cities to blast, overtake, and gobble up in their voracious garbage-truck maws.
That dazzling initial blast of action has the propulsive, world-building creativity we’ve come to expect from the Mad Maestro of Middle-earth — even if it’s Jackson’s longtime protégé Christian Rivers who’s technically the film’s director. But then, once you begin to acclimate to the film’s eye-candy junkyard wonders, it slowly starts to dawn on you that there’s still another hour and a half to go — and that it’s going to be a long ride indeed.
Based on a series of novels by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines isn’t just about a future of dwindling natural resources and technology jerry-built from used parts, its plot turns out to be second-hand, too. It’s virtually a beat-for-beat remake of George Lucas’ original Star Wars. From its naïve, wannabe flyboy hero Tom (Robert Sheehan), to its tough heroine with mysterious parentage Hester (Hera Hilmar), to its sarcastic, swaggering mercenary with a bounty on her head Anna Fang (South Korea-born musician Jihae), the movie uneasily anchors its shock-of-the-new look with shrug-of-the-old storyline. Even the film’s villain, Hugo Weaving’s charismatically duplicitous Thaddeus Valentine, turns out to be a bad father who’s building a top-secret, world-destroying weapon. The only thing missing is a Wookiee and a pair of bickering droids. At least it cribs from top-shelf source material.
Mortal Engines looks like it cost a billion bucks. If only as much originality had gone into its beats-by-Joseph Campbell narrative as its Baron Munchausen-for-teens set design. The actors, apart from the always-dependable Weaving, don’t add much screen presence to their hand-me-down roles. It’s also an oppressively busy film with a drums-of-war score that won’t be happy until it cudgels you into submission.
Forty years after Lucas first whisked us to his galaxy far, far away, there’s no denying that we live in a cinematic universe that’s been largely mapped out by Star Wars. But in Mortal Engines, that debt is too literal. We’ve all seen enough tales about scrappy young rebels sticking it to the big, bad empire and finding their inner hero along the way. Maybe that’s why, despite all of the film’s retro-future eye candy, it never quite sweeps you out of your seat and transports you someplace new. It’s a squeaky salvage job that could have used a fresh dose of oil to make it hum. C+