December is often the month to look out for one of Peter Jackson's fantasy spectacles since he and his writing partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh revived the genre 17 years ago with The Fellowship of the Ring. He has since treated us to two superior sequels, a pretty solid King Kong remake, and an underestimated Hobbit trilogy. A year ago we already saw teaser trailers for Mortal Engines, which did what teasers should do: they make us hungry. And of course, it had Jackson's name proudly displayed all over it. But don't let that fool you, because he didn't direct this one.
That is no problem in itself, because Jackson on the producer's seat gave us the masterful District 9 (another underrated gem worth watching) and The Adventures of Tintin (technically a Spielberg movie, but still). However, in this case, his script contribution and Christian Rivers on the director's chair are by far the biggest problems of the movie.
A world where huge cities are turned into moving vehicles sounds like something that could be very cinematic, and indeed, it looks great on screen. Especially the parts where a huge predator city swallows and recycles a smaller one is exactly the kind of imagery that the makers must have envisioned. There are more beautiful locations in the film, like a city in the air, some good ideas and action scenes, and the film sells these things well enough for me not to question the logic of it. But this is as far as good worldbuilding goes, because the (back)story and characters are used in a most uninspired fashion.
A good director knows how to balance exposition with advancing the narrative, but Rivers clearly lacks such talent. The first 15 minutes are a barrage of expository conversations with clearly no other purpose than bringing the audience up to speed. Afterwards, the characters remain nothing more than one-dimensional archetypes throughout the movie (the silent heroin, the young hero with an unfulfilled talent, the hammy villain with world-domination ideas, the brown-nosing creep), and some even disappear from the film without any narrative consequence, which says something about the quality of the script (more about that later).
A cast full of fresh faces is usually a good thing compared to miscast band of A-listers, but most of the bit players get too little screentime or act too badly to make a good impression. A band of racially diverse heroes is introduced very late in the story, which is a mistake because the movie doesn't emotionally invest in them, so we couldn't care less about their fate. Not that the actor's direction is of any help, by the way. Hera Hilmar is downright boring and unbelievable as the tough protagonist, and Hugo Weaving does a uninspired bad guy act that fails to generate any sympathy. Robert Sheehan as Tom seems to be the only one having some fun with his role.
There is not much joy to get from the storytelling part either, as the by-the-numbers plot clearly took a backseat to the visuals here. Most dystopian sci-fi movies make grateful use of their universe's mythology, and the beginning is promising. But the backstory is quickly used as an excuse to have the villains search for a very powerful item, with the heroes drawn in to stop them through way too many badly written coincidences. If this sounds like a cheap version of The One Ring, you're not wrong.
To spice up the heroine's motivations, they invented a dead-end subplot featuring some sort of green Terminator, but like lots of other things in this movie, this is just a nice idea, badly developed, and thrown in without proper motivation or catharsis. The film takes itself much too seriously with hardly any moderating humor, and the cheesiness towards the end becomes so bad that the 'shocking revelation' (a clear rip-off from another fantasy series) amounts to absolutely nothing.
How a big studio allowed this film to be helmed by a storyboard artist with only two short film segments under his belt is anyone's guess. I assume Rivers was accomplished enough as an artist to sway them with his intended look for the film (which is absolutely the most positive part of the film). Jackson probably vouched for him, and got poor Hugo Weaving involved to secure the budget. Jackson shouldn't be blamed completely for giving promising talent a chance, but he, Boyens and Walsh should seriously contemplate their contributions to the screenplay. Three Oscar-winning writers who managed to get the unfilmable Lord of the Rings novels to the screen should be able to do substantially better than this.
I know we have been spoiled by series like Game Of Thrones where there is ample time to set up story, subplots and characters, something that is always challenging in a 2-hr movie. But when you want to start a new fantasy franchise, at least put a certified cook in the kitchen who knows how to balance the ingredients, and prevent it from becoming the next Golden Compass.