If you’re not going to get a good movie for your money, you may as well get a lot of one. So it goes with Mortal Engines, a YA fantasy novel adaptation that seems to have learned from the overlong Divergent series by packing the entire Mortal Engines trilogy into one movie. Or, perhaps producer Peter Jackson (not director, as you may have been led to believe by the marketing) learned that lesson from the world’s Hobbit fatigue, and insisted it all come for the price of one ticket. All three are entirely too much, but at least when the movies are split up, the viewer has the option to bail, while Mortal Engines keeps you captive for an interminable journey where you already know the destination, like an Uber ride with a too-chatty driver.
The setting is a distant future in which the society we know has been eradicated by a horrible weapon released the world over. (Shown, of course, as a series of blasts on the Universal logo. Are they greenlighting movies specifically so they can incorporate it into the prologue?) Over a thousand years later, the cities we know are no more, replaced by mobile municipalities that still have names like London and Bavaria for some reason. London specifically is what’s known as a predator city, roaming the earth and consuming smaller, weaker cities for resources, and absorbing their populations. Why yes, that is a metaphor for colonialism, congratulations on remaining awake.
The narrative follows scavenger Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and sheltered museum employee Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) as they struggle to expose the evil of London leader Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Thaddeus, a former anthropologist appointed by a stuffy aristocracy that he seeks to overthrow, has to use those ancient, world-destroying weapons against the resistance that has taken refuge in Asia behind, you guessed it, a wall. So now we have refusing to learn the lessons of the past, the end of the class system in England, and globalization.
All of these are fine topics, and Mortal Engines has its heart on the right side of the subjects. But if this movie shows anything, it’s that an apt metaphor is not always a worthwhile one. There’s not much insight into how or why colonial powers operated or the mentality behind a person who supports the endeavor. It is quite satisfying to see a resistance made up of nationalities that suffered colonial brutality, but that joy is drained when the characters become hollow foils for the two white kids in love.
All of this is to say nothing of the slog of a second act concerning an undead robot named Shrike (Stephen Lang under lots of CG) who is obsessed with finding and killing Hester for reasons totally unrelated to the main plot. It introduces an entirely new mythology and then acts like it never happened when it’s time for the big battle. It may have worked as a standalone story about the nature of a soul, anchored by a solid performance from Lang, but as a glorified subplot it’s peculiar and out of place.
Director Christian Rivers has made a pretty movie, but it is exhausting—and not just from all the burnt fuel.
PG-13, 129 minutes, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
See it again
PG-13, 101 minutes. Violet Crown Cinema, December 20
Local theater listings
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000