Although fantasy film wizard Peter Jackson co-wrote the screenplay of this dazzling mishmash of a movie with his “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” cohorts Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, don’t expect another epic adventure for the ages in “Mortal Engines.” Based on the first of a quartet of young adult novels by Philip Reeve, this film is more of a lightweight diversion for undiscriminating CGI addicts.
First-time director Christian Rivers (a visual effects Oscar winner for Jackson’s “King Kong”) unfortunately takes a “more is more” approach that often feels like an over-revved assault on the senses. Swooping cameras are nearly always in motion, the bombastic but generic score (by Tom Holkenborg, a.k.a. Junkie XL) is on almost constant blast, and the frenzied action-scene editing is on the ADHD spectrum.
The story’s future-dystopia setting is established before the movie proper even begins, as explosions go off all over the planet Earth behind the opening Universal Studios logo. Turns out this “Sixty Minute War” was so devastating that people still are scavenging for survival 1,700 years later.
The flick’s preposterous but visually impressive central gimmick is that entire cities and towns have become mobile, traveling on gigantic treads to “ingest” weaker ones for their resources and people. That’s sort of like if a rambling Russia had to chase down a fleeing Crimean peninsula across Europe before claiming and assimilating it. Whether the spoils of this “Municipal Darwinism” possibly could justify the massive amount of energy that would be required to move an entire major metropolis cross-country falls in the category of, “Hey, this ain’t a physics symposium, Brainiac.”
The premise is reminiscent of “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” opening skit “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” in which a roving London office building mounts a pirate-style attack. Other myriad influences detected in this simpleminded steampunk saga range from “Mad Max: Fury Road” to “The Iron Giant” to the Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasies “Castle in the Sky” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” with some “Star Wars”-style aerial dogfights thrown in for good measure.
London’s relentless and literally scenery-chewing pursuit of a small Bavarian mining town on the run definitely makes for the year’s most offbeat opening chase scene. At the helm of the Brobdingnagian British behemoth is Thaddeus Valentine (former Tolkien Elf Lord Hugo Weaving), who heads a mysterious research project taking shape in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although Valentine is outwardly affable to all and magnanimously welcoming to the conquered, his eyebrows alone are enough to let you know that this ambitious patrician is secretly up to no good.
As newly acquired immigrants are processed, a public-address announcement notes that “children may be temporarily separated from parents.” It’s funny how a single painfully unsubtle political-agenda reference like that can take you right out of a movie. The same goes for inserting groanworthy contemporary clichés into what’s supposed to be distant-future dialog, such as when one character tells another, “I’m just messing with you.”
Valentine’s blissfully unaware blond daughter Katherine (Leila George) has a class-transgressing friendship with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an attractive but nerdy historian in the Newt Scamander, unthreatening-manchild mold. Showing Katherine around the London Museum, Tom points out relics like present-day smartphones from “The Screen Age,” and “American deities” in the form of two timeworn statues of cartoon Minions. Yes, from the Universal animated franchise of the same name. See earlier note about things that take a viewer right out of a movie.
Arriving with the captured Bavarians is the scrappy and scar-faced Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who wants revenge on Valentine for the years-ago death of her mother. Complications soon strand her and Tom in the canyon-size tread marks of the departing London, leaving the odd couple to fend for themselves in a no-man’s-land of slavers and other colorful ne’er-do-wells.
Hester’s backstory includes the movie’s best character, a resurrected half-man, half-machine bounty hunter called Shrike (motion-capture portrayed by Stephen Lang). Standing nine feet tall with green spotlight eyes and frightening strength, he relentlessly pursues Hester on land, sea, and air to make her pay for betraying a terrifying promise. The fact that this CGI construct is the most poignant and interesting cast member says something about the performances of the flesh-and-blood ones.
South Korean musician Jihae portrays aviatrix Anna Fang, a resistance fighter who opposes roving city-on-city violence and thinks everyone should settle down (again, quite literally). Her fellow “Anti-Traction League” pilots congregate in Airhaven, a storybook-pretty conglomeration kept afloat in the sky by gigantic bags filled with flammable gas. Unfortunately, sensible Tom’s first question upon arriving there is not, “Do you people have a death wish, or what?”
A final-act by-the-numbers battle between London and the peaceful shield-wall city Shan Guo ends with a corny Schwarzenegger-style quip from Tom, but the good news is that the movie does have an ending. If “Mortal Engines” stalls out as a one-and-done, instead of motoring on with adaptations of the other three books, at least it won’t have concluded with a sequel-setup cliffhanger.