In far future following a cataclysmic war, huge predatory cities roam the world, consuming smaller mobile settlements for resources. A young man named Tom (Robert Sheehan) is a historian of the old world who finds his fate entwined with that of a mysterious young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmer) who seems hell bent on bringing London to a crashing halt.
The strongest asset the film has is its world. The production designers have created a vibrant and rich look to the giant mobile cities. There’s a lovely level of detail in every set. Weta is clearly still capable of rendering bizarre yet believable worlds. The nature of the world impacts the sets in fun ways. Scenes play out entirely within the tread marks of the giant wheels and there’s a constant motion and rocking to remind the audience that this is a world in motion.
It’s a shame therefore that the story within this world is not more engaging. This is primarily because the characters are so uninteresting. There are tragic backstories abound and all are conveyed, with only perfunctory reluctance, through heavily narrated flashback. It’s all quite lazy and does little to build the characters. Even the excellently designed indeed robot man Shrike has a gollum-esque demeanor that is utterly at odds with his tragically stoic visage.
There are many stories but they do not feel interconnected. One does not influence another. The Shrike storyline, in fact, could have been entirely abandoned with no impact on the plot or character arcs of others. There are characters who spend most of the film absent, particularly Leila George as Katherine Valentine, the daughter of the main villain who conducts a brief romance subplot with a lower class engineer. Their quest for truth contributes nothing to the story. It’s a hodgepodge of ideas with no congruence.
The action can be a little hard to follow and fails to capture the scale of cities battling each other. The opening chase has some interesting elements but as a vehicle supposedly the size of a small town turns on a whim, with no depiction of the effect of such maneuvers on the inhabitants of the speeding city. So whilst the cities are beautiful, they fail to deliver Mad Max style mayhem.
Mortal Engines has a fun premise and a strong aesthetic but there’s no real substance. It’s a decadent, vacuous behemoth that lumbers along and feels tragically weightless.