The 23rd-century world of “Mortal Engines” looks great: a fabulous and richly textured steampunk dystopia of haves and have-nots straight out of H.G. Wells. Populated, on the one side, by people in frock coats festooned with gold braid, and, on the other, begrimed laborers in goggles and grease-smeared coveralls or thrift-store chic, it’s a pleasure to watch — with the sound off. The story is bloated and, despite flashes of imagination, overly familiar. And the dialogue, peppered with well-worn catchphrases like “We didn’t start this, but we will finish it,” is an assault on the brain, by way of the ear.
Adapted from Philip Reeve’s 2001 book by writers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (who also produced), and directed by first-time filmmaker Christian Rivers (a longtime art-department collaborator of Jackson’s on the director’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films), “Mortal Engines” bears no resemblance to those works, except visually. Set in a world in which gigantic, mobile “predator cities” on caterpillar treads roam Europe, swallowing up smaller “static settlements” to devour them as fuel, the film may have a clever premise, but in ways large and small, it is, like its hodgepodge aesthetic, wholly derivative. The central story about Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a power-hungry megalomaniac who has turned the city of London into a roving, if earthbound, beast of prey, and the rebels who resist him feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of every fantasy franchise from Mad Max to Pirates of the Caribbean to Star Wars.
Yes, the setting is a wasteland of dwindling resources. And yes, there’s a staggering undead zombie villain (Stephen Lang, playing a metallic walking corpse with glowing-green eyes named Shrike). There’s even a scene in which a plucky rebel (Robert Sheehan) pilots a small fighter plane into the belly of the Death-Star-like behemoth around which the action swarms, exhaustingly.
In addition to Sheehan’s Tom, a museum curator who tends to a repository of such “old tech” as iPhones with smashed screens and a pair of Minion statues — referred to as “the American deities,” in a cute, if all too rare joke — the main hero is Hester (played by Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar with a large facial scar that only makes her more beautiful). Hester and Tom find themselves on the side of an underground resistance manned by a mini-United Nations of insurgents with such names as Anna Fang (Jihae), Yasmina (Frankie Adams), Sathya (Menik Gooneratne) and Khora (Regé-Jean Page).
You know they’re the good guys because they’re diverse. London appears to be mostly white.
But I’m overthinking this. “Mortal Engines” is no political film. In spirit and ambition, it’s closer to a children’s serial like the 1950s’ “Flash Gordon” — complete with swashbuckling comic-book heroes and scenery-chewing villains — than anything made this century.
The most modern thing about “Mortal Engines” is its excess. As corpulent and as unwieldy as the film’s vision of London is — sluggish, lumbering and clumsy — the movie isn’t something you savor so much as swallow whole, without tasting it. If you do decide to buy a ticket, the best advice might be what Valentine says to his engine-room underlings. It’s just before London, like a snake, unhinges its huge mechanical jaws and gulps down a small Bavarian mining town — people, bricks and all: “Prepare to ingest.”
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of futuristic violence and action. 128 minutes.