Film review: ‘MORTAL ENGINES’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed”

Conceptually inventive but poorly executed, the clunky, ridiculous post-apocalyptic steam-punk, sci-fi adventure Mortal Engines is one of the least convincing sci-fi epics of recent years.

The film, which is based on Phillip Reeve’s popular novels, is set in a post-nuclear holocaust future where Earth’s surface has been bombarded by a doomsday weapon and turned into a scarred semi-desert. While some people still inhabit the land, most reside in cities that roll around the country on gigantic tank tracks. The bigger cities like London have become predatory machines gobbling up smaller mobile towns and assimilating their populations. Controlling London is chief engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) who, at first, seems a benevolent figure but soon reveals his sinister cliched villain plan to obliterate with (what else) a giant laser, any opponents to his city’s global dominance. Attempting to stop him are the mysterious young woman, Hester (Hera Hilmar), reluctant hero, Londoner Tom (Robert Sheehan) and a band of rebels who despise the giant city-tanks.

A villain wielding a super-weapon, a dorky young hero, a feisty and imperious heroine and a rebel alliance launching a counterattack against the pompous baddies, hmmm, what does that sound like?   In addition to the Star Wars-esque storyline, the film throws in some of Mad Max’s more silly-ass post-apocalyptic elements and a cameo from what appears to be a Terminator, leaving us with a Frankenstein’s monster of a film glued together from bits of other much better movies.

Within this very familiar template the film has a few intriguing ideas, not the least of which is the concept of cities transformed into giant rumbling vehicles. Unfortunately, the potentially interesting origins of this society, the complexities of this post-holocaust world and any commentary about globalisation and all-consuming capitalism are quickly shoved aside for a shoddy action extravaganza. This might not have been such a big problem had the action been well-filmed but the aerial invasions and Kung-Fu battles have little energy or excitement and most of the hand-to-hand fights are so confusingly edited as to be incomprehensible.

Director, Christian Rivers concocts a few visually impressive scenes of the vast rumbling cities but this film is so drenched in CGI it has almost no sense of flesh and blood reality. Consequently, there’s no threat as characters just seem like figures in a video game. Also, the film is emotionally barren. Director Rivers tries to manufacture some feeling through an awkwardly placed sub-plot about Hester and her former (and very Terminator-like) robot guardian but this sequence comes and goes so quickly it never establishes an emotional connection.

Worst of all though is the acting which goes from shouty and overly earnest, to Derek Zoolander-approved one facial expression performances to awful scenery-chomping Welcome to Woop Woop-style mugging. Because of this, too many characters are just silly, especially the rebels who look like post-apocalyptic caricatures from a bad 80’s music video.

Disturbingly, there is talk of a Mortal Engines trilogy. Subsequent instalments may well enliven this sci-fi fantasy world and make something resembling a meaningful statement about the society it depicts but on the basis of this episode the prospect of sitting through another one is pretty dismal.

Nick’s rating: **

Genre: Sci-fi/ adventure.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Christian Rivers.

Release date: 6th Dec 2018.

Running time: 128 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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