Mortal Engines (New Zealand / USA / 12A / 128 mins)
In short: Leaves an impression
Directed by Christian Rivers. Starring Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Lang, Jihae.
The Plot: In a Dystopian future Earth ravaged by an hour-long war, everyone is striving for survival. Remaining populations are clustered in cities and towns on wheels, which move through the desolate landscape looking for resources. Hester (Hera Hilmar) finds that her little town is gobbled-up by city predator London and stripped for resources. The gargantuan, resource-hungry London is presided over by Thaddeus (Hugo Weaving), the man who killed Hester’s mother. She takes a chance to gain revenge, but is cast outside along with rebellious Londoner Tom (Robert Sheehan) and is pursued by ghoulish cyborg Shrike (Stephen Lang). Together, they must find a way to stop Thaddeus from his ultimate, destructive goal…
The Verdict: Based on the book by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines is another in a long line of attempts to crack the Young Adult adaptation market. With The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner franchises all wrapped up, there’s a new kid in town. A determined one with a facial scar. Whereas some adaptations have failed at the last hurdle (Divergent), Mortal Engines is one of the stronger efforts that shows serious potential for further films. That is, if this promising first film is a reasonable success at the box office. That’s not a sure thing of course, given the high budget involved. It’s an expensive-looking film and is a dark fantasy that recalls Mad Max as much as Dune, but it strikes out on its own from the thrilling opening chase sequence.
Christian Rivers makes an ambitious directorial debut here. If you’ve spent days trawling through the exhaustive The Lord Of The Rings DVD appendices, you’ll be familiar with him from working on the storyboards, visual effects and other production departments. He’s got a keen eye for detail, world-building from the ground up by establishing the geography of his environments and the moving cities. The city predator of London looks like steampunk meets Terry Gilliam, with St Paul’s Cathedral at its apex where sinister experiments are being conducted. The irony of a resource-hungry London crossing into the European mainland and one character remarking that they should never have gone into Europe is not lost. The Brexit parallel couldn’t be more obvious, though this is not a political film.
The script, by Peter Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh and frequent collaborator Philippa Boyens does a good job at distilling the book down to its core elements and even provides surprising moments of emotion from a certain character. There’s a decent character arc for Hester, caught between two very different antagonists. However, a good chunk of the script is drowned out by the need to keep the film constantly in motion. Rivers needs to slow the frantic pace down and allow more character development, which would balance out the eye candy on display. The blaring score by Junkie XL doesn’t help much either. Sometimes no score over important scenes can be just as effective.
For a first film in a proposed series, Mortal Engines is flawed and wobbles as much as its trundling cities. Rivers, along with the support of Jackson, just about holds it all together though and delivers a rip-roaring, entertaining ride through his uniquely designed world. With its dark, mature tone, good performances from an international cast (including Ireland’s own Robert Sheehan) and top-notch visual effects, Mortal Engines leaves a distinct impression that other Young Adult adaptations often fail to achieve. Sequel please.