Movie Review – Mortal Engines

Principal Cast : Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila george, Ronan Rafferty, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang, Colin Salmon, Mark Hadlow, Caren Pistorius, Mark Mitchinson, Rege-Jean Page, Menik Gooneratne.
Synopsis:  In a post-apocalyptic world where cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive, two people meet in London and try to stop a conspiracy.

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There’s something to be said for the creative expanse of New Zealand’s filmmaking community. In particular, the next generation of filmmakers who cut their teeth under acclaimed Kiwi icon Peter Jackson; the director of Mortal Engines, Christian Rivers, was originally a storyboard artist and conceptual designer for Jackson’s Braindead, and has worked on every project the filmmaker has done since, working his way up through the ranks to finally receive a solo directorial credit here. It says a lot that Rivers’ star is rising as a visual storyteller, given his work on previous outings including the Middle Earth saga, Jackson’s King Kong, and his long-awaited (but still not quite greenlit) Dambusters remake. Mortal Engines is perhaps, then, the perfect showcase for the team in the land of the Long White Cloud, a gargantuan landscape and monolithic visual effects housing a cracking adventure yarn set in a dystopian Earth a thousand years hence, complete with a fully-realised society and humanity, the perfect canvas for Jackson, co-writers Phillipa Boyens and Fran Jackson to go as big as they can.

Far into our future, Earth is in ruin. A nuclear holocaust brought about by mutually assured destruction, resulting in a society where “old tech”, remnants of our modern civilisation, is prized above all else. Enormous mountain-sized mobile cities, of which London has become one, roam the vestiges of continental Europe, preying on smaller settlement cities to absorb and collect their possessions to further power their own designs. Aboard London, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) seeks to further his ambitious nature by providing a new weapon in the war against the mobile cities and the rebellious Anti-Traction League, who have developed an alternative civilisation of their own. When he is attacked by assassin Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), Thaddeus is helped by young apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) before he too finds himself flung from the city into the wastelands below, accompanied by a fleeing Hester. Together they are rescued by Anna Fang (Jihae), a leader in the Anti-Traction League, who knew Hester’s dead mother Pandora (Caren Pistorius) and hopes Hester’s knowledge of her mother’s murder can bring about London’s downfall. Meanwhile, a deadly re-animated corpse like being known as Shrike (Stephen Lang) stalks Hester for its own unique purpose, hell-bent on killing the young woman.

Oh, I did enjoy this movie. I’m sad it found little interest in the mainstream, becoming one of 2018’s bigger box-office bombs thanks to inane local marketing and a Christmas holiday release alongside both Bumblebee and Mary Poppins Returns. It was a film battling established properties, and it was never going to win that fight. But it’s a great little adventure movie, mind-blowing in visual design and execution and legitimately awe-inspiring for the depth of development that’s gone on behind the camera to realise this fully fleshed-out world inhabited by enormous city-cars that race across the ruined surface of our world. Dystopian films are my jam, baby, despite my feelings about both the Divergent and Maze Runner franchises, neither of which are a patch on what Rivers and his production team achieve here. Unlike many teen-centric Young Adult properties, Mortal Engines sticks the landing with fresh eyes, a sense of the sublime adventure and a thrilling directorial flourish honed by years of watching a master in action. It’s a film designed to pull you within it, much like London pulls in smaller settlement cities as it chases them Fast & Furious style across whatever remains of Europe, and the level of detail and design in every aspect of the production is astonishing. The film looks and feels expensive (budget reportedly clocks in between $100-150 million), a lavish adventure story with characters who make the most of their relatively shallow development in service to a grander motive.

The film is based on Phillip Reeve’s 2001 novel of the same name, the first in a quartet set in this apocalyptic future. The story tackles ideas of “municipal Darwinism”, in which each city represents a society on the move and consuming resources across the landscape in which it travels. This is at odds with the Tractioneers’ idea of a static settlement (much like our own modern cities and towns), and the war between the two ideologies is the crux of Reeves’ premise. The film’s script is by acclaimed writing partners Peter and Fran Jackson as well as long-time associate Phillipa Boyens, all of whom have worked on everything from Lord Of The Rings onwards with Jackson. They bring a sense of playful fun and frantic world-ending shenanigans to Mortal Engines‘ haphazard lark, engaging multiple story arcs and a fairly large ensemble of characters (some of whom find their footing here moreso than others) with the flourish of people unfettered by restraint of expectation. Unlike their Hobbit or Rings writing, in which a rabid fanbase of Tolkien aficionados pored over every change and inclusion to the films, Mortal Engines is a far less well known property that I suspect they could take some liberties with. The dramatic beats of Hester’s backstory, as well as Tom’s infatuation with her, are obviously given heft by Boyens’ pregnant style of melodrama, while the action beats and grand visual spectacle afforded the film is typically Jackson-esque. One suspects Christian Rivers tasked his mentor and team with a lot of assistance to design and produce this film, and it shows.

Which isn’t a bad thing. Mortal Engines is a fairly predictable adventure story that offers a few decent surprises, a memorably devilish Bad Guy in Hugo Weaving’s Thaddeus Valentine, and some of the most amazing visual effect sequences I’ve seen in a very long time. The sight of gigantic cities on wheels moving across the land, chasing each other in that nominally easy-to-understand steampunk mechanism aesthetic, is rendered with cheeky zeal by Rivers and the artisans at WETA Digital, an eye-wateringly detailed vision of the future that desperately needs further exploring in future films that, if the film’s box-office is anything to go by, will now never happen. The societies aboard each city, retrograde versions of their modern day counterparts, feel fleshed out and believable, and the design work on the cities themselves is a marvel of cinematic virtuosity. Indeed, very few films feel as lived in as this while remaining as crisply photographed as digital cameras can deliver, and Simon Raby’s cinematography is to be commended. The effects are – at least to my rapidly decreasing eyesight – nearly flawless, with widescreen vistas, lavish sets and massive action set-pieces (including an attack on an enormous wall protecting the static settlements, which makes the destruction of Helm’s Deep look like a minor skirmish by comparison) all giving width to Rivers’ vision, and it’s a credit to the director’s sense of topography that he could muster the wherewithal to maintain coherent plotting amidst the carnage.

Of note: the film is stolen utterly by Hugo Weaving, who portrays Thaddeus Valentine with all the teeth-gnashing villainy he can muster. It’s not a particularly challenging role for the actor, but his gravitas and effective screen presence more than enable him to out-act everyone else in the film. Hera Hilmar makes a convincing Hester Shaw, and her chemistry with Robert Sheehan (who looks incredibly like a long-lost brother to Eddie Redmayne), as the timid-but-a-hero Tom is effectively warming. Both Hilmar and Sheehan develop their character well enough respectively and they certainly make an attractive pairing (despite Hester Shaw’s enormous facial scar), and as proxy leads in the film offer compelling reason to invest your time. Less so, perhaps, are secondary roles to Leila George and Ronan Rafferty, whose characters remain aboard London and provide sidebar exposition in the way of realising Thaddeus’ machiavellian plans and the threat to our heroes. The character of Katherine Valentine, Thaddues’ daughter, is all for Leila George to own on-screen, and to a degree she does. But the writing on her character is iniquitous, at best, and I really did struggle to differentiate her from every other bland YA heroine out there today. Rafferty, as low-class janitor Bevis Pod (serious, I did not make up that name), is there purely for brawn and looks, and nothing else. Jihae is uber-cool as an ace pilot, Top Gunning herself through the film with high kicks and aerial stuntwork and generally being awesome. It’s also cool seeing Patrick Malahide as a bad guy too, playing the Mayor Of London in the film. And if you’re expecting Stephen Lang to appear in person, you’ll only find disappointment: the character he plays, a mo-capped reanimated corpse akin to a Terminator-via-HR Geiger, is truly the most frightening thing in the movie, and the actor’s performance is effectively menacing and remarkably emotional.

The reason I’m gushing so positively about Mortal Engines despite a critical and commercial drubbing is that it’s actually not that bad a film. It certainly doesn’t deserve the mauling it got from critics, because in a juvenile way it’s quite an exciting, engaging experience. Sure, it lacks the gritty realism of a Maze Runner or similar property, feeling more at home in a Waterworld or Mad Max-adjacent aesthetic, but it’s not a bad movie, not by a long stretch. Speaking of Mad Max, you’ll be interested to know that Tom Holkenberg, aka Junkie XL, who scored Fury Road a few years back, gives us an absolute ripper musical soundtrack on this film, one I was happily tapping my foot to every so often by sheer coincidence. Mortal Engines is pure visual eye-candy, a total trip that references modernity (Universal’s Minions have a lot to answer for) whilst treading familiar but fun ground in search of its sense of purpose. And that purpose is simply to dazzle, which it achieves with room to spare. Harsher critics than I would contest it lacks a soul, and I would admit that some of the emotional heft left me wanting less rather than more, but for sheer balls-out visual wizardry and a playfully adventurous spirit, few films in recent times have come as close to delivering a lived-in cyberpunk world that feels like it actually could happen, and for that i’m most happy to recommend this one.

© 2019, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.