Mortal Engines


            1,000 years from now.  Earth has regressed.  The voiceover at the beginning says that it took all of 16 minutes for “The Ancients” to blow everything up, and leave only a few survivors.  The weak ones perished, the hardy ones got together and built cities.  Portable cities, with a strange technology that is steam engine meets transformers.  In this arid part of the world, people don't even live on land any more, but on top of these giant machines that move like tanks over rough terrain.

            Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is a survivor, but she's herself to one of the little engines, that's about to get swallowed up by a big engine.  The big one calls itself London, and tries to decorate itself with some remnants of the glory of the The Ancients' version of London, but alas, the museum is mostly filled with burned-out trinkets like unusable toasters.  Occasionally, though, they'll find a bit of old technology which just might have some usefulness.  The mayor/leader of the portable city, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), has secretly gathered some of this old technology in order to construct an ion cannon that will give him a weaponry advantage over his opponents.  When he takes over smaller engines, he tries to assure the new immigrants that they will all be treated with respect and dignity.  This, after they're lined up, told to leave their possessions to pick them up later, and that they will be “temporarily” separated from their children.  (Yes, the same thing the Nazis told the Jews in the camps.)  Hester Shaw has a personal reason for wanting to get close enough to Mr. Valentine to do him harm, but her effort is thwarted by a city employee, Tom (Robert Sheehan), who is also very interested in relics from the past, but he is also one of the residents who's been deceived by the slippery Mr. Valentine.

            Enter a rebel warrior, Anna Fang (Jihae), who's not only a resistance leader, she's also a pilot.  The aircraft looks like an unusual combination of ballooned-out wings and some sort of gas engine, with attached machine guns.  The technology seems to be somewhere between World War I and World War II.  The guards, too, seem to be equipped with pistols rather than automatic weapons, so futuristic weapons technology has not progressed past the early 20th century.  However, there don't seem to be countries or nations in the old traditional sense.  And the only children around are briefly glimpsed in straight lines, in uniform.  The basic problem, as usual, is scarcity of resources.  So the conflicts are in how the resources are distributed.  There's a scene where the cheering populace is standing on a balcony overlooking a military triumph.  It looks like great fun, until it isn't.  Kind of like the reports of people from Washington, D.C., riding out in their carriages to view the first Battle of Bull Run.  They soon learned that war isn't a spectator sport.

            Speaking of borrowings, there's some un-original-looking borrowings from the “Star Wars” saga, from faceless storm troopers to “I am your father” to blasting into the core of the Death Star.  With the rest of the film being so original in its particular bleak vision of a dystopian future, these obvious borrowings are a disappointment.  The romance between Hester and Tom is never very convincing.  And the bad guy isn't really evil enough for us to revel in his demise.  It's got some fun computer graphic images of rolling cities, but the story line lacks verve, vivacity, and vigor.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association