In the genre of ‘teenagers saving the world in post-apocalyptic wastelands’ ‘Mortal Engines’ is a very odd entry. Its conceit, taken from a successful young-adult novel series from the early 2000s, makes very little sense. After the world was destroyed in a brief, brutal nuclear war, society has rebuilt itself…on wheels. Entire cities have been lifted, somehow, on to massive chassis and hurtle around the scrubby land looking for stuff. How? Not even a suggestion of an explanation. Why? It’s never really clear, beyond it being a good excuse for some whizzy CG.
And the CG in this film is very whizzy. Weta Digital have done a fantastic job making this odd world look real. You will believe a teeming metropolis can chase a Bavarian village across the desert. Visually it’s often wondrous. Behind the visuals, though, the machinery is awfully creaky.
The Lord of the Rings team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson wrote the adaptation. ‘Lord of the Rings’ showed they are brilliant at wrangling rambling story and massive worlds into understandable narrative. That skill has deserted them here. Every plot turn in ‘Mortal Engines’ raises more questions and provides very few answers.
Its core character is Hester (Hera Hilmar), a loner assassin fixated on killing Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who was responsible for the death of her mother. Valentine is a very powerful and well-respected man in London, the largest and apparently most vindictive of the wheeled cities, whose inhabitants don’t know he’s building something sinister in St Paul’s Cathedral. When Hester tries to kill Valentine she’s stopped by Tom (Robert Sheehan), a young man who archives old relics like toasters and televisions. The pair wind up stranded in the wilderness, forging an unlikely alliance as they try to get back to London for very different reasons.
While it’s at heart a simple revenge story, the mechanics are often deeply confusing and drearily humorous (only Sheehan raises any kind of adventurous energy). Valentine does all his scheming in secret, so people won’t realise he’s evil. But the residents of London are shown to be so bloodthirsty, shouting and cheering whenever they destroy a smaller city and not remotely objecting when he reveals his grand plan, that he may as well have been above board the whole time.
Hester’s backstory is baffling, involving a mother who was, we’re told, vital to those resisting the wheeled cities but also in a relationship with Valentine, neither of which is clearly explained. There’s a zombie assassin that relentlessly tracks Hester, killing hundreds, because…he likes her? The plot is a distant secondary consideration to action set-pieces. There are so many gaps in the storytelling and so much reliance on chance and characters guessing things that it’s never even remotely absorbing or satisfying. It’s a beautifully designed world but no real life exists within it.