A thousand years ago, the Sixty Minute War nearly wiped out the human race. The survivors built Traction Cities, which are cities on huge wheels that roll across the abandoned landscape. In a process called Municipal Darwinism, the predator cities attack, dismantle, and absorb smaller settlements on the Great Hunting Ground, which is basically Europe. The Anti-traction League build non-mobile static settlements in Asia, led by Shan Guo, which is China, protected by the Shield Wall. Old Tech, consisting of 21st Century relics like toasters and smartphones are sometimes found and much sought after.
Under orders from Lord Mayor Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahyde), the city of London captures a Bavarian mining town called Salzhaken, absorbing its population. Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) arrives to collect Salzhaken’s Old Tech for London’s Museum. Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a beat-up, disfigured woman from Salzhaken, tries to assassinate Deputy Lord Mayor Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), but Tom intervenes. Hester escapes from Tom down a chute, off the city, after telling him that Valentine murdered her mother. When Tom tells Valentine about this, he throws Tom down the chute as well.
Tom and Hester are now lost on the Hunting Ground, hiding from scavengers and sheltering in a vehicle called a Scuttlebug, but they are locked up to be sold as slaves. Hester tells Tom that Valentine killed her mother to obtain a valuable piece of Old Tech found in the dead continent of the Americas. Meanwhile, Valentine frees a prisoner called Shrike (Stephen Lang), a reanimated cyborg who had once protected Hester, hoping he will find her. At the slave market in Rustwater, Tom and Hester are rescued by Anna Fang (Jihae), an agent of the Anti-traction League.
In the chaos, they are pursued by Shrike, who had found Hester as a child and raised her after she escaped from Valentine. Back in London, Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George) is estranged from her father because of what he had done to Tom. She discovers that Valentine’s energy project in St. Paul’s Cathedral is more than it seems. Hester and Tom travel on Anna’s airship, the Jenny Haniver, to the floating city of Airhaven and meet with the Anti-traction League. It seems that what Hester’s mother Pandora (Caren Pistorius) had found was a computer core for a quantum-energy-powered superweapon called MEDUSA, which Valentine built. It was what had caused the Sixty Minute War and rearranged the continents, instantly destroying cities.
Shrike catches up with Tom and Hester, destroying Airhaven and badly injuring himself. He spares Tom, gives up his claim to Hester, and dies. Hester, Tom, and Anna travel to the Shield Wall of Batmunkh Gompa with the rescued Anti-tractionists. Valentine kills Lord Mayor Crome in a coup and gains the support of the Londoners by vowing to destroy the Shield Wall with MEDUSA and lead them to happier Hunting Grounds. Anna convinces the Governor of Shan Guo to launch the Anti-tractionist airships against London, but MEDUSA blasts a hole in the wall. Hester learns that her mother’s necklace she still carries contains a kill-switch for MEDUSA. The Anti-tractionists attack London.
Hester and Anna infiltrate St. Pauls. Valentine wounds Anna in a duel and Hester destroys MEDUSA with the Crash-Drive kill-switch. Valentine is insane by now and sets the city on a collision course with the wall. Katherine and Tom use the Jenny Haniver to destroy London’s engine. In a fight with Hester, Valentine reveals he is her father. (Really!) Tom rescues her and shoots down Valentine. London, now headed by Katherine, makes peace with San Guo and the Anti-tractionists. Tom and Hester take off to explore the world.
This weird steampunk adventure was directed by Christian Rivers from a screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Philip Reeve. It was an American-New Zealand co-production. The director was picked by Jackson because of his Oscar-winning special effects in King Kong and was joined by production teams from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Weta Digital created the impressive, wheeled cities, like Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, but the Miyazaki film was an animated fantasy and did not inspire the thought, “Why build these things in the first place?”
Critics were not terribly impressed and neither were audiences, apparently. The studio reportedly lost nearly 175 million dollars. Katherine Valentine is played by Leila George, who is the daughter of Vincent D’Onofrio and Greta Scacchi. The film’s working title was Squeaky Wheels. Much of the story seems derivative, and it is full of action-movie clichés, but if you can ignore that, the cities and the airships and huge machines, fantasy creations worthy of Peter Jackson, are gorgeous to behold. It reminds me of John Carter in that way.