PLOT In a future when movable cities must become either predator or prey, a rebel group discovers a doomsday plot.
CAST Robert Sheehan, Hera Hilmar, Jihae
RATED PG-13 (some strong violence and frightening moments)
BOTTOM LINE An elaborate adventure-epic with a fresh new cast and an appealing steampunk style.
Forget tariffs, trade wars, Brexit and nationalism — “Mortal Engines” has got the economic ideology of the future, and it's called Municipal Darwinism. What better way to describe the guiding principle of a post-apocalypse world in which entire cities, now mounted on wheels, chase each other down to absorb resources, supplies and citizens? As the Lord Mayor of a fast-moving London says, after spearing a small Bavarian mining town like a marlin: “Prepare to ingest!”
Christian Rivers' adaptation of Philip Reeve's novel from 2001 (the first of four) arrives at the tail end of the young-adult dystopia genre and aspires to an exceedingly high level of spectacle. “The Hunger Games” it is not, nor is it another “Avatar.” It is, however, highly stylized, lavish-looking and wildly imaginative, almost to a fault. With its steampunk aesthetic, a fresh cast of lesser-known faces and a well-polished script from a three-person team led by producer Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”), “Mortal Engines” is, in short, a total kick.
The implausible premise begs to be balanced out by a standard-issue plot, and here it is: A London Museum staffer, Tom Natsworthy (a soulful Robert Sheehan, “Bad Samaritan”), rescues a city elder, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), from assassination by the renegade Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). To Tom's horror, he and Hester both are kicked off the city and left for dead in the Outlands. Now that our young Winston Smith's eyes have been opened, he realizes Valentine is re-creating the very doomsday weapon that leveled civilization in the first place.
What follows are adventures of all kinds, most fairly familiar (the slave auction, the lawless outpost, the aerial battle) but executed with style and flair. The film's cowboy character, for instance, is Anna Fang, a cool woman with Justin Bieber's pompadour and George Harrison's sunglasses (she's played with swagger by Jihae, a Seoul-born musician-actress). Meanwhile, Valentine plans to attack the last Shangri-La of peace, harmony and greenery in – where else? – China.
All told, “Mortal Engines” is terrifically entertaining, a starter-kit “Fury Road” with wonderfully fanciful production design from Dan Hennah. By the way, what was Manhattan doing while all this was going on? Let's hope for a spinoff.