The premise is cool, the visual effects are quite spectacular (give or take a wonky green screen or three), and the world-building is almost there. So why is Mortal Engines a mixed bag of cool ideas? It’s simple really, Peter Jackson and his protege Christian Rivers forgot about fundamentals, like good acting, great dialogue, and a daring plot that does more than regurgitate doomsday machines and deus ex machinas.
But wait, the premise is neat…right, well, premise and plot are not one and the same. The premise, that of a dystopian future where moving cities battle for survival of the fittest in a barren world, is a high concept of Hollywood mogul dreams. The plot, a hodge-podge of YA tropes and scifi cliches, is simultaneously convoluted and commonplace, the result of New Zealand’s best and brightest seemingly beholden to the genre’s expectations, and perhaps the source material’s own common trappings. There are haunting images, such as the well-oiled monstrosity of London swallowing a bitty mining town whole, or the sheer destruction wrought by a “quantum weapon,” but they are often juxtaposed with dubious JPEGS for backgrounds. There are grace notes in the tale of a dead man (Stephen Lang) reanimated into an android creature, but his service to the plot is both pointless and extraneous, even if it is their lone claim to emotional density. There’s even greatness in the campy lateness of cheerful one-liners in a bombastic third act, where a Korean pilot and a dreamy male lead rattle off “I’m late for church” and “You’re history” with tongues firmly planted in cheek. But they are few and far between in a script laden with leaden exposition and woeful conversation. Hugo Weaving and newcomers Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmarsdottir give their heart and soul to pseudo-characters, a lot of individuals with a few choice personality traits and little else, but they’re surrounded by an eclectic if anonymous cast of lesser thespians from the UK and Oceania.
Everything’s got a but to it, even Peter Jackson. He and partner Phillipa Boyens are producer and writer, but not director. They’ve left that to a dear friend with something to prove, and prove it he doesn’t. Regardless of whose fingers were more prominent, one wonders where the Jackson of old has gone. Are the comparisons apt, and he’s truly followed the path laid forth by George Lucas? If so, Mortal Engines would be his Red Tails. I mean, just look at that plane.