Directed by Christian Rivers
Written by Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens
Starring Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan and Hugo Weaving
Classification: PG; 128 minutes
In the future, Minions™ will be precious relics and cities will exist on large moving vehicles. The postapocalyptic dress code will be steampunk, and the human race will have evolved past war and weapons and desperate bids for power.
Or so we think.
Because as we learn very quickly, Mortal Engines is a story that deals largely in secrets. To start, we don’t know why Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) desperately wants to kill London-based archeologist Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Then, we don’t know why Thaddeus has such a vendetta against Hester’s late mother. We also don’t know anything about Anna Fang (Jihae), a rebel with a price on her head for (I think) rallying against the existing city systems, and we certainly don’t know why a zombie robot is so thirsty for Hester’s blood that he’ll kill anyone who stands in his way.
Fortunately, all of it is brilliantly and efficiently explained in an interesting and compelling way.
Just kidding. Based on the 2001 book series by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines mistakenly swaps out slow-burning revelations for explanations that come fast and furious and with no time to digest them. Which is actually understandable: Within the first 10 minutes alone, we meet nearly a dozen characters who seem to have relevance, but then fail to appear on-screen long enough for us to develop our own feelings for them.
We know we should cheer for Hester, and we know we should want her to have a relationship with fellow outcast Tom (Robert Sheehan) – much like we should feel sympathy for Katherine Valentine (Leila George), who slowly comes to realize her father, Thaddeus, is a weapons-obsessive megalomaniac. But it’s impossible: Just when director Christian Rivers begins to set up a backstory that would help us glean a little more insight into members of the movie’s motley crew, we’re yanked away into another subplot where once again, we’re forced to figure out who’s who, why and whether we should even bother to let them in.
So, by the hour mark, you just … don’t. Especially since instead of gingerly peeling back story layers or character traits, memories are delivered via flashbacks, montages and a-ha moments. (Which – and not to spoil anything, but for the record – is the least effective way to make anybody emotional over an angry zombie-robot.)
Of course, you can’t expect a lot more if you’re packing so much plot into a two-hour movie. (Especially if you don’t have a multipicture deal that would provide more time to develop characters. Seriously: Imagine packing three Harry Potter books into one of the shortest movies and then just expecting everyone to understand Voldemort’s intentions.) And it’s a testimony to the acting of Hilmar and Jihae that despite us knowing next to nothing about their characters, they still make us care enough to hope they don’t die.
But unfortunately, that isn’t enough, because while a handful of characters do seem interesting enough to justify zooming in on their pasts and realities (here’s me petitioning for a stand-alone movie about Anna Fang), the dozens of others we meet make Mortal Engines feel like a catwalk of character tropes we’ve seen presented better, elsewhere. Which isn’t fair to anybody: not the audience, not fans of the franchise and certainly not to the actors who, despite lacklustre dialogue and character development, genuinely seem to be trying their best.
What’s ironic (and frustrating) is that in an era defined by a constant feeling of doom, a story that could actually capitalize on it makes us feel that way only when we all realize it’s been nearly an hour in to the story and we’re still meeting new characters.
Mortal Engines opens Dec. 14.