New Zealand/ USA
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 128 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
It is the future during a period known as the Traction Era, and a terrible conflict known as the Sixty Minute War has reduced to a barren wasteland. Many people now live in mobile cities known as Traction Cities which compete and dismantle one another for resources. In London, Katherine Valentine, daughter of leader Thaddeus Valentine, befriends engineer Bevis Pod, and historian Tom Natsworthy foils as assassination attempt on Valentine by Hestor Shaw, a girl out for revenge against Valentine for murdering her mother. While the two have to go on the run, London is running out of food, and Valentine is up to something in a secret laboratory in St. Paul’s Cathedral….
While Christian Rivers is the director on Mortal Engines, it will no doubt be more thought of as a Peter Jackson film, who as well as co-producing also co-wrote it along with his usual writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. In fact it’s easy to think of Jackson being in the director’s chair right from the swooping opening shots over the locales. He’s actually been wanting to film Philip Reeve’s not very well known Young Adult novel for some time, and one perhaps wanders why he was so intent on making such a seemingly rather uncommercial project in these sad days in which original projects tend to struggle to attract the audiences that flock to films featuring folk in spandex. I have the feeling that it won’t do too well, which is a shame really as Mortal Engines is really quite a likable and imaginative entry into the blockbuster stakes, and I’m sure that many who do go to see it will at least appreciate that Jackson and company are still able to tell a story without stretching it out to a great length and over more than one film – though this actually seems to hamper this particular project in some respects. The story seems very rushed in places with little room for proper characterisation. On the other hand the tale is consistently fast paced with no fat in it whatsoever, and at its best the film achieves a rather glorious cross between a Mad Max episode, a Hunger Games installment and a live action Hayao Miyazaki feature.
The opening scene-setting narration is rather hysterical though it’s also really short, which is a nice change, and then it’s into a big action sequence that gives us the rather extraordinary image of a city which is able to fold in on itself. London wants this smaller town for itself, or rather its resources, so we then get to see huge grappling hooks latch on to the other city and pull it down, after which it’s swallowed by England’s capital. Like many who are old enough to remember when CGI didn’t even exist, I find it very hard to feel anything when I get digital imagery thrown at me en masse in movies these days. Been there done that, seen it all before. But there’s no doubt that the visuals here are quite innovative as well as almost entirely convincing. London itself is also rather fascinating, with its upper deck where the higher class citizens live, to its bowels where gobbled-up smaller cities are looted and then smashed to bits, to the familiar London landmarks mixed up all over the place. There’s even a museum that features relics from the 21st Century, such as two Minions described as:“deities”. It’s just as well this museum exists, because apparemtly there’s little recorded information of the period, possibly because people couldn’t read or white – something that we’ll told while somebody picks up a mobile phone. An easy jab perhaps, but one worth making considering that even at the preview showing of the film I attended, I had to tell off the stupid bint sitting next to me for looking at her phone. Old-Tech, as it’s known, is now actually considered rather valuable in this future world which is easily the best realised depiction of a steampunk/diesel punk environment in a live action film, crammed full of intricate detail and properly thought through ideas.
The person really in charge of London, Thaddeus Valentine, is especially interested in all this Old Tech stuff because with it he’s able to start building something secret and deadly [and in the end totally unoriginal]. In his younger days he killed Pandora, mother to Hester Shaw who now understandably wants him dead. While Valentine is played with expected evil relish by Hugo Weaving, it’s the four main younger characters who take precedence. Thaddeus’s daughter Katherine becomes friendly with engineer Bevis Pod, and the two start to find out that Thaddeus isn’t at all the nice guy that they think, with Katherine feeling divided in her loyalties. However, this particular part of the plot is given rather short shrift. I have no idea if this was the case in the book, but it means that we don’t get to experience an evolution in Katherine’s way of thinking and her and Pod’s uncovering of what Valentine’s really up to happens too quickly. The main emphasis is on Hester and Tom Natsworthy, a historian researching the past, which creates something of an imbalance in the narrative. Hester fails to kill Thaddeus and escapes his men, then Valentine attempts to kill Tom but fails. The two find themselves thrown together, and predictably the female is the tougher, more hardened one out of the two. Out of a very diverse cast, Icelandic Hera Hilmer and Irish Robert Sheehan do have a certain chemistry together and are definitely not displeasing to spend time with, even if perhaps too many minutes are devoted to them.
Things soon settle into a series of kidnaps, escapes and chases, along with a few less dangerous encounters with the denizens of this land, like a couple who live in an underground vehicle where the woman serves tea in which “the algae is fresh”. We’re often reminded of how dirty and unhygienic everything is, and you may even wince a couple of times even though nothing nasty is shown on the screen. At one point we find ourselves another fabulous setting, a fairy tale-like city in the sky called Air Haven. I love it when a film takes me to somewhere I’ve never been before, something that is rather different to all the increasingly identikit CG-scapes that the movies take us too these days. There were times when Mortal Engines did that for me, which means that I’m perhaps a bit forgiving of the fact that there are as many hoary old cliches as there are creative ideas. Of course you expect things to climax in all-out war, though it all seemed rather too much like the ending of one Star Wars film for me while there seemed to be nothing less than a direct reference to another [just look at the way it’s staged]. There’s also a wall that looks incredibly similar to the Black Gate in The Return Of The King, plus some very Mordor-like landscapes, though I guess one can’t help but make these kinds of connections a little. On the other hand there’s some charmingly designed aircraft that Miyazaki probably wishes that he’d designed. Directorially it really does some like a Jackson film in everything but name with the exception of some faster editing and irritating ‘shakycam’ during some of the exciting moments, rendering some of the action an eye-hurting blur, though of course that’s nothing new these days. And sadly the opening city swallowing is never repeated despite the idea of larger cities eating smaller ones being one of the most important factors in how this world functions.
Some flashbacks look like cut down fragments of fuller sequences, though Rivers ensures that these moments still have quite a lot of impact. But we do seem to be rushed through the back story of most of the the characters and their connections with others. At times exposition takes the place of character building. It’s obvious that Jackson is trying to prove something here, and that’s understandable after his ridiculously bloated, self indulgent and mostly misjudged Hobbit trilogy, though there were occasions when I wandered if he’d gone too far the other way with this movie, and by the end I didn’t feel like I’d really gotten to know most of the people in it much better than I’d done after 20 minutes. The best done aspect of the story is Shrike, the super strong, remaining survivor of a race of semi-robotic zombie-like creatures [it’s not really explained exactly what they are] who were created to hunt down people. Shrike has a very interesting relationship with Katherine. He knew her when she was a kid but Katherine broke a promise to him and he now wants to kill her. Easily the best realised character in the film, he provides some genuinely touching moments as well as some scary ones and the always excellent Stephen Lang allows some real personality to come through in the part despite being totally unrecognisable.
Mortal Engines is undeniably limited by its necessity to stick to the annoyingly tight restrictions of the Young Adult genre, and did somebody really say: “we should not have gone into Europe”? I guess we have to expect an increasing number of references to that six letter word beginning with B from screenwriters who wish to sound timely, as if they have their finger on the pulse. The film is also let down by its score from the horribly named [well, it’s not his real name] Junkie XL. While some of the quiet musical passages are quite good, the majority of the music sticks firmly to the Remote Control [Hans Zimmer’s film scoring empire where all the composers are taught how to score films the same way, though to his credit Zimmer has partly broken away from this style] template, so you know exactly what you’re going to get: the same chugga chugga musical patterns, the same minor chord progressions, the same synthesised horn blasts, the same taiko drums etc. The score is especially detrimental to the climax where it prevents the action from reaching a higher level of excitement, and throughout I couldn’t stop thinking what a decent composer would do with this material. Overall though this film is really quite an odd mixture of genuine creativity and lazy cliches – but the former does just about outweigh the latter. Mortal Engines certainly has some personality, with a slight quirkiness and even charm that you probably wouldn’t get if this was a Hollywood production. There are three more books to film, and I somehow doubt that it’ll happen, but all in all I’d like to proved wrong.