There is something about the craziness of the high concept of The Mortal Engines that hooks one’s imagination. In a dystopian future, cities have been mounted on giant platforms that roam the countryside looking for smaller towns to devour for their resources. And the opening twenty-five minutes of the film that were previewed this weekend at New York Comic Con did indeed bring such a sprawling concept to life. Unfortunately, it seems as if the characters who will adventure through this world seem kind of lost amidst all the sturm und drang.
The screened footage opens with the Universal logo, and as the Earth spins we see numerous blue explosions dot its surface, a hint about the apocalypse that will bring about the world of the movie. (It’s a conceit used by Universal similarly for Waterworld and other films.) Almost immediately we meet Hester Shaw, decked out in standard post-apocalyptic gear, a red scarf hiding part of her face. She spies the rolling city of London bearing down on a cluster of smaller towns who have come together to trade goods and supplies.
As the alarm is sounded, the towns split apart in a rather impressive way with interconnecting walkways retracting as each smaller platformed town gears up to make its escape. London finally bears down on one of the fleeing hamlets, the one that Hester is on. Good thing too, as it seems as if Hester has a need to sneak aboard London to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving), one of the city’s rulers. There’s also some running around with historian-in-training Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan) and his newly-made friend Katherine (George), who just happens to be Valentine’s daughter.
The entire sequence ends with Hester making her escape after her failed attempt to kill Valentine, and Tom following her off the city against his will thanks to a very expected heel turn from Valentine. It’s Hugo Weaving, gang, what do you expect?
Rivers work in visual effects really serves him well here. The break-up of the huddled towns as London begins its attack is cleverly done and the chase as it bears down on the one town trying to escape is suspenseful in itself. Things start to go astray, though, once we enter onto London during the chase. So much of the dialogue for characters like Tom and Valentine seems more like exposition for the audience than it is conversation between two people. This first act or so of the movie is so concentrated on setting up its crazy world that it has forgotten that its characters need actually live here and not just explain it to each other.
Perhaps things will settle down as the movie moves past the end point of the Comic Con preview. Given that there are characters who will pop up in the story that haven’t even been introduced yet – although the actors were on hand for the panel – there is certainly much of this world to explore. Here’s hoping that the film takes the time to explore its characters as well.