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The ‘Mortal Engines’ that couldn’t

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Every once in a while, I’ll see a movie that indicates to me that the YA dystopia film adaptation boom is coming to a close. In terms of critical and/or commercial performance – not to mention general quality – it will just cry out rock bottom. And yet, we keep getting more big-budget dart throws as studios desperately grasp for the next “Hunger Games.”

But few of those shots-in-the-dark have failed even close to as spectacularly as “Mortal Engines.” This film – based on the Peter Reeve book series of the same name – was supposed to be a jumping-off point for a new franchise. Instead, it might be the biggest bomb of the year.

It’s a clanking, overwrought piece of stylized junk. The effects work is uneven, the narrative is simplistic and riddled with holes and the performances are indifferent at best and distractingly terrible at worst. This movie traffics in every cliché and overused trope in the YA sphere – and does so while completely lacking awareness. It clanks and crunches and generally disappoints; it is as poorly-oiled a machine as you’re likely to find.

Basically, at some time in the undiscernibly distant past, all of humanity engaged in something called the 60-Minute War. Vaguely-explained quantum weapons were discharged, killing millions upon millions while shattering the Earth’s crust. The surface of the planet has been fundamentally altered in terms of geography.

And so to survive, humanity basically mechanized their cities and put them on wheels, turning them into enormous “predator cities” that roam the planet, searching for other, smaller cities to consume for resources and to add to the lower classes of their populations. They call it “municipal Darwinism” and in a movie just packed with dumb things, that is one of the dumbest. Whatever.

A woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, “The Ashram”) makes her way onto the city of London in an effort to kill Mayor Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, “Black ‘47”) and avenge the death of her mother at his hands. He survives the attack, but in the process of ejecting her, his crimes are overheard by a young historian named Tom (Robert Sheehan, “Bad Samaritan”); Tom must in turn also be booted.

Hester and Tom are alone, out in the wastelands. The two must team up to prevent Valentine from executing his plan to use salvaged ancient technology that inexplicably still functions to revive one of the old world’s quantum weapons to use on the defensive wall protecting the biggest of the “static cities.” It turns out that Hester’s mom found the thing that could make the weapon work and that’s why Valentine killed her.

Oh, and there’s also a hot-air balloon city for some reason. And an unkillable zombie cyborg thing called a Stalker that is single-mindedly devoted to tracking and killing Hester for reasons almost entirely unrelated to the rest of this business.

“Mortal Engines” is a mess. An absolute mess. Nothing about it works in the slightest. You’d think that with a massive budget and some talented people involved – Peter Jackson and his usual team have their fingerprints all over this movie – they’d at least stumble into a moment or two that worked (a stopped clock is right twice a day and all that). But no. This movie misfires on every possible level. It is bad.

I have SO MANY QUESTIONS.

If the entire crust of the planet was shattered and rearranged, how was there anybody left? And how did the survivors manage to construct these massive steampunk city structures without the benefit of any advanced technology? Like, they’re always hunting for tech, but how did you have the tech to turn London into a miles-high all-terrain tank? It doesn’t make sense. And how did municipal Darwinism become the standard societal structure? Wouldn’t the first city to finish their tank just win?

You’d think a movie like “Mortal Engines” could at least get some traction via the effects. Sure, the idea is stupid, but there’s potential for some impressive visuals when you’re talking about cities that are giant steampunk tanks. That should look cool, right? For the most part, it does not. The production design isn’t particularly impressive; the motion shots (which are nigh-constant) are blurry and muddled. This kind of movie HAS to look good; this one does not.

As for the performances, well … yikes. Our leads Hilmar and Sheehan check the standard YA dystopia boxes – different upbringings and social statuses, implied “specialness,” all that nonsense – and of course they fall in love, even neither the narrative nor their chemistry gives the least justification for it. Both are basically blanks. Weaving is 100 percent here because Peter Jackson called in a favor. There are other people in here, but they hardly matter – the best of the bunch is probably either South Korean musician Jihae as blimp-flying outlaw Anna Fang or Stephen Lang as the aforementioned unkillable zombie cyborg.

Nothing about “Mortal Engines” works. Not the story. Not the aesthetics. Not the performances. Nothing. Just tow this clunker to the junkyard and be done with it.

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