“Mortal Engines” might not be a particularly good movie, but it’s a BIG one, and sometimes that can be even more important. Adapted (on steroids) from Philip Reeves’ neo-Victorian steampunk fantasy of the same name, this $100 million holiday-season event starts off like a supersized remake of “Fury Road,” as two mobile cities shoot massive harpoons at each other in a death race through the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Europe as Junkie XL’s bombastic score yowls in the background. Yes, mobile cities. One of them is London, and the other is a quaint mining colony that doesn’t have a name worth remembering; they travel on giant turrets, stretch a mile into the sky, and mulch each other for fuel.
This — viewers are informed via opening narration that sounds like it’s being read by Immortan Joe himself — is the way things have been since a scary fusion weapon of some kind wiped out the “ancient world” of the 21st century more than 1,000 years ago, decimating our civilization in a war that only lasted for 60 seconds. Imagine if Manhattan were mounted on wheels and then rolled across the Hudson river to attack Hoboken; it would look absurd, and be difficult to see clearly, but there’s no doubt that it would be worth watching on IMAX.
Even at its worst (which is where it often resides), “Mortal Engines” is still a rousing advertisement for the theatrical experience. Unlike “Roma,” however, this would be utterly worthless to watch at home. Watching the film on a television or laptop would be like staring at a stereogram with one eye closed: You’d get the idea, but you wouldn’t be able to see it for yourself. The size of the thing isn’t an added benefit, here: Bigness is the point. This is a movie about the potency of imbalanced proportions, the dominance of the large over the small, and the metastatic need for those in power to grow ever more powerful, and the best thing that can be said about rookie director Christian Rivers is that he suffuses that theme into the very soul of this gargantuan mess.
“Mortal Engines” might be scavenged together from the bones of a zillion better fantasy epics, but the film’s derivative nature is almost part of its charm. If not for the wooden dialogue — and a cast of characters so forgettable that the actors should have been forced to wear name tags — the hodgepodge storytelling might even seem intentional. Thirty-year-old Robert Sheehan stars as 16-year-old Tom Natsworthy, a plucky apprentice historian who works in the Museum of London, and reveres whatever relics he can find of the ancient world (the Museum’s exhibits include a cracked iPhone, a statue of two Minions, and other symbols of a civilization in decline). Part of Tom’s job involves telling his transparently evil boss, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), whenever he comes across the rusty old reactors that fueled the doomsday machines that once scorched the Earth. Despite his nostalgia for dead cultures, Tom has apparently never gotten around to watching “The Matrix” or “Cloud Atlas” or really any other Hugo Weaving movie, for that matter.
Unfortunately for Tom, he learns that lesson the hard way. When a scarred assassin named Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar) sneaks aboard London and tries to kill Thaddeus for murdering her mother, our hero overhears that accusation. Thaddeus, in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, drops Hester and Tom into a garbage chute and out into the barren hellscape that stretches between the rolling cities. And so the two bickering exiles begin a journey back to London in order to stop Thaddeus from dooming them all to a repeat history — a journey that will see them ride a house that looks like a rock and moves like a centipede, travel to a hilariously ill-conceived floating market so combustible that it can be destroyed by a single match, and spare a few minutes for a subplot involving some minor characters back in London who are so underwritten they hardly merit a mention.
It all ends with a big, eye-numbing battle and a lot of purple light beams shooting into the skies, as most blockbuster-sized movies do these days. In a story about the perils of history repeating itself, perhaps it’s fitting that Peter Jackson — who first hired Rivers to storyboard “Bad Taste” back in 1987, and serves as a producer and co-writer here, along with usual cohorts Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — failed to learn any lessons from the CG overkill that consumed his “Hobbit” trilogy. At least this film continues to benefit from the stunning New Zealand locations that Jackson has always known how to capture on camera.
Still, it’s a shame that our time on London is so short, as the mobile metropolis is far and away the film’s most interesting character (and there are some other legitimate contenders for that title, including a deathless foster dad who’s part zombie and part Terminator, and a badass rebel pilot who might as well have escaped from a “Final Fantasy” video game — more on her in a minute).
While CG overload robs the place of its splendor when seen from the outside, it’s a marvel whenever the camera travels indoors. Ignore how illogical it is that the English capital has retained so many of its visual landmarks 1,000 years into a ruined future, and focus instead on how cool they all look when stacked on top of each other. The Tube now runs vertically, spanning the gap between the Blitz-era vibe of the working class sections (“Keep Calm and Keep Moving” boast the signs, appropriate for a film that never stops) and the stately gardens of the rich, who quite literally live above the rest. Hollow, hyper-functional writing isn’t the only thing here that evokes “The Phantom Menace,” as sleek vehicle designs sit alongside rusty baubles that could have been salvaged from the broken dystopia of “Brazil.” It’s a microcosm of the “Municipal Darwinism” that governs this world, and one of the few examples of when the movie doesn’t just feel like a montage of narrativized concept art — when this hodgepodge of influences coheres into a discernible flavor, instead of losing one altogether.
The other standout is the aforementioned rebel pilot, Anna Fang, a role for which South Korean musician and multimedia artist Jihae has been rather ingeniously cast. Magnetic from the moment she appears on screen, Anna Fang (it’s more fun to say her full name) rolls up in full “Matrix Reloaded” attire, complete with a fierce red jacket and a pair of thin rectangular sunglasses that aren’t even sensible by Morpheus’ low standards. It’s a striking look, sure to be cos-played to infinity in the coming years, but the part is so interesting because of Jihae’s unstudied energy, and the elusiveness it brings to a movie where every other character is completely obvious. On the page, Anna Fang is little more than a cool aesthetic, but Jihae finds some inscrutable life in there, and hints at a depth that “Mortal Engines” has no interest in mining.
The film is too busy to stand still, as the script does its damndest to power through a staggering degree of of world-building without pausing to catch its breath. There’s enough fantasy jargon in these two hours to fill an entire season of “Game of Thrones,” but Rivers doesn’t have the time or patience to let us learn any of it for ourselves. There’s a character named “Bevis Pod,” but odds are you’ll have to Google that after the movie to figure out which guy he was, which is frustrating because any character named “Bevis Pod” should obviously be iconic. Instead, he’s just a cog in an admirably gigantic machine that stretches to the heavens only to spit out a simple message about the dangers of power, and the upside of pacifism. There’s so much to love here, and so little opportunity to enjoy it. But at least it’s big. Huge, even. And sometimes, when you’re competing against Netflix and a night on the couch, that’s all a movie needs to be.
Universal will release “Mortal Engines” in theaters on December 14.