Mortal Engines (2018)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 12/15/18
Producer: Peter Jackson
Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila George

Human civilization as we know it was destroyed by horrific weapons of mass destruction during The Sixty Minute War. In the aftermath, the hunt for dwindling natural resources gave rise to giant mobile cities that prey on smaller and weaker human settlements. One of the largest and most dangerous of these Traction Cities is London, which is scouring the happy hunting grounds of Europe. One of its newly assimilated citizens is a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who attempts to assassinate head engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). A young historian named Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) thwarts the attempt, only to find himself on the run with Hester from the town he calls home. Valentine is up to no good, and is attempting to resurrect the weapons of the past in his bid for global domination. Only Tom, Hester, and revolutionary terrorist Anna Fang (Jihae) can put a stop to his mad power play before he invades Asia.

It's essentially "Star Wars" on wheels, and the dystopian steampunk aesthetic is visually spectacular. Unfortunately, everything else about the film disappoints. I wanted to like it and I felt like I should have liked it, but much like London itself, the film is crushed under the unsustainable weight of its pretentious and overstuffed narrative. The premise of the story is absurd, and requires constant suspension of disbelief to remain engaged. That would be okay if the film didn't also suffer from too many tiresome clichés. There's the unlikable and reluctant orphan hero of low status (Tom), the violent and vendetta-driven heroine with a secret past (Hester), the bad-ass revolutionary outlaw/mercenary (Anna), the morally ambiguous and megalomaniacal villain (Valentine), the good-natured and naïve daughter of the villain (Leila George), and the rag-tag collection of stout-hearted rogues who are ready to lay down their lives in the never-ending fight against oppression. When the villain is the most likable and endearing character in the cast, you know the movie's in trouble.

The politics and caste struggles of London are downplayed in favor of bombastic action, pedestrian dialog, and pathetic attempts at humor. The story is overly predictable and subtlety isn't the film's strong suit. It's all flash and no bang, and its big "I am your father" moment is as laughable as it is confusing. Wait, was this really supposed to be a secret? It's like watching one of those old Hong Kong movies where the girl fools everyone by dressing up as a boy for the entire film and finally reveals that she's actually a girl, which surprises absolutely nobody. It's just another instance of the film insulting the audience's intelligence. The film also goes off the rails with an extended side plot about a cyborg guardian-turned-assassin, which should have been reworked or ditched altogether. There's absolutely zero chemistry between Tom and Hester, and Hester's fierce exterior melts away far too easily in his presence, which compromises her character and undermines the audience's faith in her. Sadly, the film falls into the same trap that many other big budget sci-fi fantasy spectacles do, like "The Last Airbender" (2010) and "The Golden Compass" (2007), by sabotaging its source material and dumbing down its narrative in a feeble attempt to find mainstream appeal.