Director: Christian Rivers
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang
Runtime: 2 hr 9 mins
Rating: PG (Violence)
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 6 December 2018
Synopsis: Hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, humankind has adapted and a new way of living has evolved. Gigantic moving cities now roam the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller traction towns. Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan)—who hails from a Lower Tier of the great traction city of London—finds himself fighting for his own survival after he encounters the dangerous fugitive Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Two opposites, whose paths should never have crossed, forge an unlikely alliance that is destined to change the course of the future.
Peter Jackson has been at the front and centre of the promotional campaign for ‘Mortal Engines’, the first in a series of four YA novels by British author Philip Reeve, so much so that you might think that he is its filmmaker in the same way as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ trilogies. But despite being a passion project of his, Jackson is only its co-writer and co-producer, having handed directorial duties to his long-time VFX artist-collaborator Christian Rivers. That distinction pretty much explains why the movie is what it is – visually spectacular from start to finish, but in both plotting and characterisation, as clunky as some of the second-, even third-rate, steampunk metropolises that we see in the film.
Oh yes, to say that ‘Mortal Engines’ looks gorgeous on the big-screen is in itself an understatement. Every single element of the distant post-apocalyptic future that it is set is intriguing, be it the giant motorised cities propelled on rusty treads and steel wheels that barrel through the barren wastelands, or the flying airships of a band of rebel pilots called the Anti-Traction League and the floating city of Airhaven where they gather, or the half-machine half-zombie stalkers built of dead persons with their nervous systems implanted in cyborgs which are hence devoid of feelings and memories. There is plenty of mythic world-building potential in the material, and it’s not hard to see why Jackson was attracted to it in the first place, or why he had chosen to hand the reins of the movie to Rivers.
These strengths are evident right from the get-go, which opens with an exhilarating sequence where the towering predator city of London engages in a death race through what is left of Europe with one component of a quaint mining colony . After a nail-biting pursuit, London shoots massive harpoons at the helpless hamlet to reel it in, and eventually gobbles it up to plunder its resources while consigning its inhabitants to be low-level immigrants within the city. Similarly, the finale that unfolds as a showdown between London and the walled-up nation state of Shan Guo is just as breathtaking, alternating between the awesome destruction wrought by London’s quantum-powered super-weapon known as MEDUSA and the guerrilla airborne counter-attack launched by a couple of Anti-Traction rebels.
But in between these graphically stunning episodes is a much more pedestrian story that feels like it was scavenged from better fantasy epics, comprising essentially of a naïve apprentice historian cum wannabe flyboy hero Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) who teams up with the mysterious scarred assassin Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar) to stop the power-hungry Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) from unleashing Armageddon upon what remains of the rest of the world. Using pieces of old-tech that have survived the calamitous Sixty-Minute War that had wiped out current civilisation, Thaddeus is putting in place the final pieces of his plan to build the aforementioned super-weapon MEDUSA, and had many years earlier killed Hester’s mother Pandora to obtain a crucial piece of the weapon.
As you might expect, Tom and Hester starts off as rivals before forming an unlikely partnership that has romantic entanglements as well. Alas too little attention is paid to the evolving relationship dynamic between the teenage couple, so much so that when the bickering exiles supposedly develop feelings for each other in the third act, we’re left feeling unconvinced. Thaddeus’ motivation for world-domination is never explained, relegating him therefore to a straightforward villain who is just there because the story needs one. To distract us from its under-developed key characters, Jackson (who co-wrote the script with his regular screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) throws in a number of interesting but otherwise superficial secondary roles that add little to the central revenge tale.
Among these, Thaddeus’ daughter Katherine (Leila George) and a scruffy local mechanic named Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery) barely register, even though they are intended to form the resistance to Thaddeus’ plan from within. Faring the best is the notorious outlaw Anna Fang (Korean singer/actress Jihae), who plays the equivalent of the swaggering kick-butt space pirate for all its worth, although you’d hoped that there was somehow more to the back-story between Anna and Pandora. And perhaps the most ill-conceived of them all is Shrike (Stephen Lang), one of them stalkers whom Thaddeus releases from captivity to track and kill Hester; without giving away too much, let’s just say that Shrike and Hester share a complicated father-daughter bond that is so poorly handled that we almost burst out laughing at the former’s denouement.
These narrative flaws ultimately reduce what could have been a sweeping dystopian epic into little more than a series of imaginatively realised environments, locations and cities. In particular, we wish we had more time exploring the English capital, whose landmarks such as St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye have been intriguingly repurposed. Indeed, there was much potential in the story itself – including its themes of ‘municipal Darwinism’ and contrast of East and West cultures – but much of that is lost amidst a hectic, even frenetic, need to rush from set-piece to set-piece, while neglecting both plot and character to add up to something more poignant. Such are its mortal sins, and as much as we appreciate how this is a labour of love for Jackson and his Wingnut Films, we suspect it is after all too weak and uncompelling to kickstart a whole new sci-fi franchise.
(Visually spectacular but otherwise clunky and derivative, this wannabe franchise starter does some impressive world-building that unfortunately cannot make it for its lack thereof in plot- and character-building)
Review by Gabriel Chong