The advertising for the dystopian action tale “Mortal Engines” boasts that it comes from the makers of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — which one can detect by the high quality of visual effects bringing an intriguing world to life.
One can also detect that author Philip Reeve, on whose 2001 young-adult novel the movie is based, isn’t at J.R.R. Tolkien’s level as a creator of story or characters. There’s only so much Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — the screenwriting team behind Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies — can do about that.
The story happens a thousand years after what’s called “The Sixty Minute War,” when major cities were destroyed by a geology-altering weapon. (Seeing this happen on the globe of the Universal Pictures logo is, admittedly, kind of cool.) Cities were rebuilt and put on wheels, and given the name “traction cities.” London is the biggest “traction city” around, and has recently crossed into Europe to chase down smaller mobile cities and consume their resources as fuel.
As the fuel is running out, though, London’s charismatic lead engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) tells the people he has a renewable energy source he is building within St. Paul’s Cathedral. Meanwhile, Valentine’s daughter Kate (Leila George) is exploring the old tech in the London Museum, with the help of budding historian and scrounger Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan).
While in the lower levels, Tom witnesses a mystery woman attack Valentine with a knife. Tom stops the woman from killing Valentine, and gives chase through the “ingestor” tearing apart the city London just devoured. (The sequence is a masterful one, an energetic live-action approximation of figures in a side-scrolling video game.) The chase ends with two revelations: That the woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), accuses Valentine of killing her mother, and that Hester bears a facial scar she says Valentine made trying to kill her.
Hester and Tom wind up on the ground as London rolls away, and they must fend for themselves in the wilderness. After some close scrapes — including a cyborg assassin (performed by Stephen Lang) that vows to kill Hester — the two are rescued by Anna Fang (played by one-named South Korean singer/artist Jihae), who’s leading the rebellion Valentine wants to quash.
Director Christian Rivers, an Oscar winner for visual effects (for Jackson’s “King Kong”) who has been Jackson’s storyboard artist since his first movie, makes a bombastic directorial debut. Rivers’ special-effects background is evident here, in the richly layered world-building of Reeve’s steampunk-inspired cities. Rivers is less assured with plot and pacing, and there are times with the movie bogs down in all the hardware.
The cast, mostly young unknowns or little-knowns, is lively and charismatic. Their greatest talent is knowing when to move back when Weaving starts chewing the scenery, because he does it like no other. “Mortal Engines” rises and falls — mostly rises — on Weaving’s cunning.
Opens Friday, December 14, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action. Running time: 128 minutes.