In Return of the Jedi, as the Rebel Alliance attacks the second Death Star, Lando Calrissian pilots the Millennium Falcon into the core to set off a few ion charges and start a chain reaction that will ultimately destroy it. As he does so, Luke Skywalker is on board the Death Star helping Anakin Skywalker find redemption. As the explosions start burning away at the core, both characters — as well as that infamous ship — are in danger. By the time the Falcon blasts from within the fire to come out (relatively) unscathed, we’re all cheering in excitement because we want to see these heroes we’ve grown to love survive. There’s a similar sequence in the new post-apocalyptic adventure, Mortal Engines, that falls extremely flat, mostly because unlike the sequence in Jedi, we aren’t invested in any of the characters enough to have that same breathless urgency.
About a thousand years after the human race is all but destroyed by some type of quantum weapon (Ant-Man and the Wasp would be so proud), the survivors have built massive mobile cities that travel the land. One of the top dog cities is London, which spends its days devouring smaller cities for fuel, scrap and historical artifacts. The leader of London (or at least the one who appears to be in charge) is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a seemingly virtuous gentleman who may have nefarious purposes boiling under the surface.
On board the city’s most recent prey is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young girl seeking revenge against the man who supposedly murdered her mother several years before. She gets close to doing so when she spots Thaddeus trolling the scrapping facilities on London, but is ultimately foiled by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a meek historian who wants nothing more than to protect old relics like cell phones and toasters. After an interesting chase sequence, both end up thrown off London and must team up to find their way back for their own individual purposes.
There’s nothing wrong with any of the performances and the story flows well enough to keep you interested, but there is so much of the film that falls extraordinarily flat, mostly due to the lack of development in the characters. It seems the trio of writers (Fran Walsh, Philappa Boyens and Peter Jackson) and director Christian Rivers spend so much time building this interesting new world that they forgot to provide the characters with any substantial depth. Most of them simply go about the actions the script tells them to without putting any true heart into the mission, thus making the whole thing feel rather bland.
Take for instance the characters tasked with tracking Hester during her quest. Shrike (Stephen Lang) is a “resurrected” who raised Hester after finding her near death, and Anna Fang (Jihae) is one of the leaders of a resistance attempting to protect the one civilization that has set down roots in a valley hidden behind a massive wall. The motivations for both characters wanting to find Hester make sense within the context of the story, but both are so under-developed, it makes them somewhat underwhelming in their emotional impact throughout the film.
Most egregious, though, is the relationship between Hester and Tom. I never bought that they would ever find feelings enough to support what the script was trying to peddle on us. I can respect that Rivers kept it from going as far as it could have, but some of the important plot developments rely on a “love” between these characters that is basically non-existent, especially since they set up another possible relationship between Tom and Thaddeus’s daughter, Katherine (Leila George), that ends abruptly when Hester comes into the picture.
Aside from these two, there are several characters that seem to be there more for plot convenience than anything else, as they are never developed beyond a static portrait, even as they are positioned early on as being important. We only meet the band of “rebels” nearly two-thirds of the way through the movie, so by the time we reach the climax, we couldn’t care less about what happens to them since we barely know them. Then there’s Weaving, who goes through the motions of his Mr. Smith menace instead of digging his heels in and giving us someone to love to hate. A little scenery chewing may have gone a long way in building up some magnetism surrounding his plans. Rivers holds him back, however, and it turns into a disservice to the film as a whole.
Where the film does excel is in the effects and, as I mentioned before, the world building. Peter Jackson is fantastic at building worlds that breathe life, so there really wasn’t any doubt that this film would be any different. The filmmakers do a terrific job creating an honest atmosphere of what the world would be like in the 3000s, and how history can repeat itself if you’re not careful to heed its warning. This helps in creating battle sequences that work well, even if they feel unbearably familiar (see my opening paragraph).
When I first saw the trailer for Mortal Engines, I thought it would either be horribly good or horribly bad, in that, either it was going to be so bad, it’s good, or it was just going to be terrible with no redeeming qualities. After seeing the film, I can say it isn’t bad, but it’s not terribly good; it sits somewhere in the middle, stuck in the mud trying to produce a sense of life, urgency and charisma, but is unable to pull itself out of the doldrums of familiarity and triteness.
My Grade: B
Plot conveniences aside, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse finds an intelligent and visually interesting way to tell a compelling story, providing us a comic-specific style while mixing in genre animation styles specific to each individual Spider-Men (and Women) who are pulled into a New York where a kid named Miles Morales is in need of training to become the next great Spider-Man. A
Next week, new movies include Aquaman, Bumblebee, Mary Poppins Returns, Second Act and Welcome to Marwen. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.