Movie review: Mortal Engines' spectacular set design is the star of the show

Mortal Engines' steampunk aesthetic has never looked so good on screen, but it is a shame that one notices it so much because the people in the foreground are so bland.
Mortal Engines' steampunk aesthetic has never looked so good on screen, but it is a shame that one notices it so much because the people in the foreground are so bland.PHOTO: UIP

Fantasy drama

MORTAL ENGINES (PG)

129 minutes/Now showing/2.5 stars


The story: Humans live in cities on wheels because the land has been destroyed by war. Among the largest of these is London, which engulfs smaller wheeled cities for their resources. There, Tom (Robert Sheehan), a junior historian, meets Hester (Hera Hilmar), a fugitive. She has infiltrated London to kill the politician Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Adapted from the 2001 novel of the same name by Philip Reeve. 

A nautical adventure in everything but name, this movie has all the ingredients for a great pirate yarn: massive moving fortresses attack each other at a stately speed, cannons roaring; heroes clamber on rigging as captains train their spy-glasses on the horizon, looking for prey.

Call this one Pirates Of The Apocalypse, because this is set on Earth thousands of years in the future. A magnificent setting, but one marred by dialogue more leaden than a cannonball and weakly constructed characters all of whom - in the best piratical fashion - feel taken from other, better films.

This is a production that does not let the viewer forget that the might and majesty of Peter Jackson, maker of the Lord Of The Rings (2001 to 2003) and The Hobbit films (2012 to 2014), is behind it.

He is here as producer. The director is newcomer Christian Rivers, a protege of the hit-maker who arrives here after a career as a visual artist in Jackson's WingNut Films.

Hester (Icelandic actress Hilmar) and her bloodlust drive the story, with the hapless Tom (Sheehan) there mainly to react with fear, and to have plot explained to him as the story progresses.

With some obvious foreshadowing and a giant helping of flashback, the stakes suddenly go from revenge to something with more global impact. The long and spectacular action sequences, taking place on land, sea and air, go some way towards dispelling the tedium of the Star Wars-lite story.

The real star of the show is the set design. It is, as per Jackson, magnificent. The steampunk aesthetic has never looked so good on screen, but it is a shame that one notices it so much because the people in the foreground are so bland.