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Mechanical Breakdown

Hugo Weaving
Hugo Weaving
Universal Pictures
 129 Minutes
Directed by: Christian Rivers
Starring: Hera Hilmar, Christian Rivers   
Mortal Engines

Several decades ago, a book entitled The Golden Turkey Awards tried to select the all-time worst films in many categories and became the inspiration for today’s Razzie Awards. Instead of just recognizing totally incompetent filmmaking, however, in this era of ever-expanding budgets, we need a new award—let’s call it the Golden Boondoggle. The “Boonie” will be awarded each year to the movie that represents the biggest waste of studio money on a film that, regardless of quality, completely tanks at the box office. Last year, the award would have gone to the overwrought science fiction spectacle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This year’s winner, in a landslide, would be Mortal Engines, a mediocre movie saddled with a gigantic budget.


Mortal Engines is based on a YA novel by Phillip Reeve and boasts a central premise that is audacious but quite farfetched. The setting is the Earth some thousand years after most of the planet’s resources were destroyed in a very brief but extremely deadly war. To survive, the remaining citizenry transformed big cities like London into giant moving fortresses traveling on tank-like treads (not surprisingly called predators). Since most of Europe is pretty much wasteland, to survive, London and the other predator cities capture smaller towns (also on wheels) and plunder their stores.


Since much of the pre-war technology has been lost, historians and archeologists in London are respected for their ability to comb through refuse and rubble and find artifacts of value. However, the chief historian, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) has far greater ambitions. He is secretly building a doomsday weapon in St. Paul’s Cathedral (apparently future Londoners aren’t big on religion) that he plans to use on the great Shield Wall which separates the West from Eastern lands where people live in actual towns and get along with each other much better.


Not surprisingly, Valentine has made some enemies along the way, including Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young woman who was captured as one of the residents of a smaller city in the film’s opening sequence. She has a history with Valentine and wants to kill him, but when the two get in a fight, Hester winds up fleeing and eventually takes a tumble down the city’s garbage chute and into the wasteland. A young historian and admirer of Valentine, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), overheard some of the argument between Hester and Valentine, so Valentine dumps him down the garbage chute as well.


Hester and Tom find that life in the wasteland isn’t much fun, even after they are taken in by the residents of another small town. They are quickly put on the auction block for sale as slaves or, worse, the raw material for the sausage factory. Fortunately, they are rescued by the notorious Anna Fang (Jihae), the leader of a resistance movement called the Anti-Traction League that opposes the predator cities. While they spend time with Anna, Hester and Tom piece together what Valentine is up to and join the resistance in an effort to stop him.


Mortal Engines, although set a thousand years in the future, is a classic example of steampunk, a variety of science fiction/fantasy that envisions Victorian-era technology extrapolated to modern or futuristic times. Here, London, the smaller cities, and the various airships that the members of the Anti-Traction League use (including a floating city) all look like something that emerged from the sketchbook of an imaginative 19th-century engineer. Naturally, making this movie required the copious use of CGI, and it is very well thought out and executed. In his novels (Reeve has written four Mortal Engines novels to date), the author supposedly lays out the cities and the civilizations that have sprung up within them with a tremendous amount of attention to detail. Much of that translates to the movie as well, and the society of the future was an at times fascinating exercise in speculative science fiction.


Sadly, the rest of the plot of Mortal Engines was little more than an exercise in watching rehashed storylines from other films, most notably the original Star Wars. The mobile city of London, with its brand-new doomsday weapon, bears a striking resemblance to the Death Star, down to the attacks launched against it and its having a fundamental weakness. Surprisingly, that weakness turns out to be a flash drive that, when inserted in the control panel, short circuits the weapon, the exact same plot gimmick I had seen one day earlier in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Not surprisingly, Mortal Engines also has the same “surprise” reveal at the end that a similar movie had four decades earlier, a reveal that will probably not come as a surprise to anyone.


Unlike Star Wars and other films from which it borrows freely, Mortal Engines does not have any memorable characters, certainly not those we will love 40 years, or even 40 minutes later. Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan are just pretty faces (ironically, Hester Shaw was severely scarred in Reeve’s books thanks to a childhood injury inflicted by Valentine, but here scars here don’t detract from the actress’ beauty). Hugo Weaving goes through the motions, recycling every cinematic villain he’s played in his career. The only noticeable character in the movie is Shrike (Stephen Lang), a robot with a human consciousness hunting for Hester. Shrike, who looks like a cross between the metallic Terminator and a Walking Dead zombie, eventually proves to be the most complex character in the movie.


Not having read Reeve’s source books, I can’t tell if these characters were that shallow in the source material (I suspect they were since YA novels often rely on young readers to fill in the blanks with stock characters with which they are already familiar). However, the creative team of screenwriters Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens (who collaborated on all of Jackson’s films this century) and first-time director Christian Rivers, aren’t able to make the characters fresh. Instead, the entire movie, after the well-staged opening sequence, seems rushed, as if they were trying to arbitrarily cram too much material in a two-hour time frame (Jackson’s films have all gone well over two hours).


Mortal Engines gets off to a good start with a rousing action scene that far exceeds in quality the rest of the movie. After that, however, it fizzles out and becomes a slog to sit through. The later set pieces, including a lackluster finale, lack any real zest. I did find myself thinking a good bit about this particular futuristic world, but that same degree of interest did not extend to the characters. Ultimately, Mortal Engines proves to be exactly what this type of action epic shouldn’t be—surprisingly mortal. 

In this clip, Robert Sheehan learns the hard way not to trust Hugo Weaving.

Read other reviews of Mortal Engines: 

Mortal Engines (2018) on IMDb