“Mortal Engines” is such a visual marvel, such a dazzling, pictorially involving imagining of the future, it’s a shame it’s not completely worth seeing.
For though it’s based on the first volume of Philip Reeve’s highly regarded young adult series and adapted by the same trio who won an Oscar for “Lord of the Rings,” from a dramatic point of view this story set 1,700 years in the future is static and inert.
The directing debut for Peter Jackson protege Christian Rivers, who won a visual effects Oscar for “King Kong,” “Mortal Engines” is bursting with everything you’d want except compelling emotional intelligence.
Made completely in New Zealand with a cast largely devoid of big names and taking advantage of the movie-making community that created the “Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies, “Mortal Engines” elicits marvelous work from a Weta Digital team including visual effects supervisor Ken McGaugh and animation supervisor Dennis Yoo.
In fact, so many worlds are imagined and created in such meticulous detail — production designer is Dan Hennah, conceptual art director is Ra Vincent, cinematographer is Simon Raby — that at moments you cease caring how flat the storytelling is and give yourself over to this insane film, half wonderful and half monotonous.
Where Rivers, the actors and the screenwriting team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson went wrong is hard to pin down specifically. Though the plot of “Mortal Engines” barrels along in terms of events, it’s only sporadically involving on the level it intends to be.
The film begins with a recap of the past — how the use of a terrifying weapon of mass destruction had catastrophic results. “Sixty minutes,” we’re told, “is all it took for the ancients to bring humanity to the brink of extinction.”
What exists now, in the 38th century, is a world of impossibly large predator cities on wheels, steampunk-influenced monstrosities that look like Howl’s Moving Castle (from the Hayao Miyazaki film) pumped up on steroids.
Following the principles of something called Municipal Darwinism, these entities roam around ingesting smaller cities, press-ganging the inhabitants and burning everything else for fuel.
The greatest of these traction cities, as they’re called, is London, where the presiding genius, though not the actual ruler, is accomplished scientist Thaddeus Valentine, played by the film’s only recognizable star, “LOTR” veteran Hugo Weaving.
Throwing us right into the middle of things, “Mortal Engines” opens with London on wheels chasing down a small Bavarian mining town the way a massive lion would close in on an unlucky antelope.
London’s great enemy, off somewhere in the distant East protected by a massive force field, is the stationary metropolis of Shan Guo. (Though the novel was written in 2001, its East versus West face-off feels eerily contemporary.)
Yes, it all sounds completely nuts, but the gift of the visual imagination invested in this film is to make it appear before us in a completely convincing way. The people, unfortunately, not so much.
Introduced as a London resident is Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a nerdy enthusiast for the past who works for the city’s Historians’ Guild and looks after artifacts like “American deities” we immediately recognize as large-scale Minions replicas.
One of the things Tom always keeps an eye out for are pieces of what’s called old tech, remnants of the weapon systems that nearly destroyed the earth that Tom correctly thinks are still too dangerous to be out and about.
We also spend considerable time with the mysterious Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), introduced wearing a red bandanna that hides a scarred face. (The scar is considerably worse in the book, leading to online back and forth between the filmmakers and the novel’s fans.)
Not in London when the film begins, Hester has reasons rooted in her past for wanting to access the city. But no sooner does she achieve that than she and Tom are almost simultaneously thrown together and thrown off the city, left to fend for themselves on earth’s trackless wastes.
The pair survive on found food like antediluvian Twinkies from back in the day, causing Hester to knowingly proclaim, “the food of the ancients is indestructible.”
They also meet some wild and crazy characters like Anna Fang (Jihae), a hip aviatrix with a price on her head who’s also the head of something called the Anti-Traction League.
Much scarier is the nightmarish Shrike (“Avatar’s” Stephen Lang), the last of the Lazarus brigade, a zombie-type individual, half man, half machine, who is obsessed with finding Hester.
All this may sound involving on paper, but on screen “Mortal Engines” manages to be largely devoid of dramatic energy. Yet it’s a measure of how captivating its visuals are that I wouldn’t hesitate to see it again if only to try and pin down just what went wrong.
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Playing: In general release