The makers of Mortal Engines clearly went to great lengths to render a fully three-dimensional world, only to populate it with two-dimensional characters. This is perfectly embodied in a scene where the two protagonists sit breathlessly after a narrow escape. “That was close!” One of them gasps. “Yeah,” says the other. “Too close!” Millions of dollars are spent on every digital droplet of water and every blade of grass, only to have it ruined with dialogue out of a middle school play. As a mashup of everything from Mad Max to Star Wars to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Mortal Engines pulls off the rare achievement of being ambitious and lazy at the same time.
It doesn’t help that the story is built on a left-field premise: In a distant, post-apocalyptic future, steampunk cities have been retrofitted on wheels, and they prowl around the landscape like lumbering lions. These predator cities survive by running down smaller towns like frightened, soot-spewing wildebeests. The opening scene depicts London barreling over a little mining community and absorbing its inhabitants. Among them, we meet a bandana-wearing bad-ass named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Turns out, Hester planned to get captured all along, if only to exact vengeance on Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, in desperate need of a mustache to twirl), one of London’s cruel, hawkish leaders. Her assassination attempt goes awry, and she gets ejected from the city. She is joined by a baby-faced historian (Roger Sheehan), who learned too much for his own good.
Our duo straggles along the wasteland, until they link up with a floating resistance movement. They reason that Valentine is pooling his resources to unleash a weapon of mass destruction that will help tip the balance of power in London’s favor. Whoa–did I just yawn? Yup, all this ambitious spectacle, only to waste it on a generic scheme worthy of a James Bond villain. This sets up a battle royale that you can probably see coming five miles away.
There’s an old country saying that seems apropos to all this: “You can’t get blood from a turnip.” Whether or not that makes sense is up for debate, but I feel like that’s exactly what the actors are forced to do here. Hilmar spends much of her screen time buried behind a bandana, which looks cool on movie posters, but also makes her character less emotionally relatable. Weaving, a terrific actor whose voice smoothes over dialogue like water over river rock, gets stuck with a dull, scenery-chewing monster. Sheehan’s character mainly exists to supply sweaty, awestruck reaction shots. This movie overflows people who must try to wring a lot from very little.
Maybe all this sound and fury would’ve played better over several episodes of a streaming series. Characters could’ve been fleshed out a little more and the story’s frantic pace could’ve shifted down into third gear. As it is, Mortal Engines delivers eye-filling wonder at the expense of a good story. I’m afraid all we have here is a dead turnip.