"MORTAL ENGINES" — 3 stars — Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae; PG-13 (sequences of futuristic violence and action); in general release; running time: 128 minutes
There's nothing wrong with a movie that reminds you of other movies, but "Mortal Engines'" third-act stumbles almost ruin an otherwise fantastic big-screen ride.
Based on Philip Reeve's book, "Mortal Engines" is a postapocalyptic sci-fi fantasy set 1,000 years in the future. Long after catastrophic global warfare brought the end of 21st-century civilization as we know it, the survivors have gathered into two primary factions. The first lives in traditional static cities, hidden behind a massive protective wall. The second is a bit more … mobile.
Christian Rivers' film focuses mostly on the second faction, which lives outside the wall on a treacherous landscape dominated by "Predator Cities." The movie opens with an exciting chase where an otherwise normal village suddenly pops up on wheels and tries to escape from a massive city mounted on giant tank tracks. It sounds a little strange in print, but be assured, it looks impressive on the big screen.
Apparently this particular mobile city is what's left of London. Predator Cities are essentially giant scavengers, rolling around the wilderness scooping up smaller establishments like a kind of steampunk borg. As the residents quickly discover, resistance is indeed futile.
We meet the primary characters after the chase. Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) isn't the No. 1 man on mobile London, but he seems to be running the show. He's also working on a mysterious project that may or may not be intended to help the city manage its energy issues.
Valentine's daughter Katherine (Leila George) works at London's history museum, where various scavenged bits and pieces commemorate the highs and lows of the past. Her co-worker Tom (Robert Sheehan) has put together a collection of ancient weapons technology he hopes to destroy in order to prevent a repeat of the 21st century's near-world-ending calamity, but the senior Valentine has other ends in mind.
The plot gets rolling — pun sort of intended — when one of London's new involuntary residents, seeking revenge for her murdered mother, tries to assassinate Valentine. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) has been on the run most of her life and is currently being pursued by a kind of undead bounty hunter named Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang).
Following the assassination attempt, Valentine dumps Tom and Hester off the city and the two are forced to forge a pensive friendship while trying to get back to London in time to stop a confrontation with the static settlements behind the wall.
All of this results in one of 2018's most impressive visual feats — mixing up the steampunk style with elements of "Mad Max" and even "Waterworld." The mythology gets a little muddled, and there are a few too many characters to keep track of, but that's not uncommon for movies adapted from novels.
The bigger problem comes from a third-act finale that would be a spectacular action climax if it didn't feel so derivative of a certain film set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Visual nods and narrative hints are one thing, but sadly, "Mortal Engines" eventually crosses a line that smacks more of rip-off than tribute.
It's a real shame, because honestly, up until that point, this is the kind of world audiences will want to see turned into a multifilm franchise. The visuals are fantastic and the world building leaves plenty to explore. If "Mortal Engines" is by any chance successful enough to spawn a sequel, let's just hope the story does a better job of staying in its own lane.
According to Common Sense Media, while the language in "Mortal Engines" is mild, the film's sequences of sci-fi action violence contain "frequent gun use and shooting, plus explosions, stabbing and slicing."