Mortal Engines (2018)

Some scars never heal.

If you got Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and threw it in a blender with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), then added in a pinch of Star Wars and Terry Gilliam just for good measure, Mortal Engines is what you’ll spit out. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the latest Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh-produced action-fantasy-sci-fi feels very same-same, offering unimaginative thrills to go with its top-drawer imagery.

Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — the team behind the stupendous Lord of the Rings trilogy and decent Hobbit films — and based on the first part of British author-illustrator Philip Reeve’s young-adult Mortal Engines Quartet, this mega-budget book-to-film adaptation gets crushed under the colossal weight of its own ambitions, its mishmash of lavish steampunk visuals and neat ideas steamrolled by a derivative story that, after a strong enough start, hurdles into hokeyness. And the screenplay is solely to blame.

Every day I’m mufflin’

It pains me to say it, but this is Jackson and Co.’s shonkiest and laziest effort to date (it’s hard to believe that this is the same writing combo that took us to Middle-earth), the trio choosing to veer away from the more unique elements of Reeve’s writing, doing too much world-building yet not nearly enough at the same time — go figure! For instance, the fantastical post-apocalyptic setting, which moviemakers spend ample time trying to establish, is never overly explored — what’s the layout of the land? We learn that our planet’s been ravished and re-shaped after an earth-shattering event known as the ‘Sixty Minute War,’ but outside of a brief prologue that plays over the Universal logo, which sees some purple-spark bombs going off in various spots around the globe, we’re mostly left in the dark.

Our tour guide through this unforgiving terrain (Western Europe I take it) is masked, fiercely driven wanderer Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who emerges from the shadows in a foldable little trading post (made up of several smaller subsections, including a mining town) that gets quickly swallowed up by the roaring City of London, now a traction or predator city — it’s a monstrous stacked metropolis, held up by mammoth caterpillar tracks, that tramples or devours anything it crosses. You see, the creation of these mighty engines on wheels has impacted man’s very way of life, most of the world (bar Asia) now governed by what is known as Municipal Darwinism — a kind of natural selection, only-the-strong-survive philosophy — mankind having reverted back to a Victorian-era society, where revered 21st Century items are salvaged and preserved — including a couple of ancient banana-loving deities in statue form (yes, Universal’s Minions.)

Hell on Wheels

Anyhow, it’s here that we learn of Shaw’s personal vendetta, having a score to settle with a man named Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), an upper-crust citizen living in London who works as Head of the Guild of Historians, and currently leads a secret mission inside the remains of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which now sits atop the stockpile city. Blaming Valentine for her mother, Pandora’s untimely death, Hester tries to take revenge on Valentine but ultimately fails, her attempt at knifing him thwarted by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an underclass civilian and historian-in-training who kinda has a thing for Valentine’s daughter, Katherine (Leila George), another of London’s elites. Needless to say, after a jaw-dropping chase sequence that has characters weave in and out of the aforementioned cannibalised settlement — as it’s being shredded by oversized flaming chainsaws, of course — Valentine throws Shaw off the Devouring City hoping to end her life (for good this time — his first attempt left some nasty gashes on her face), pushing poor Tom off as well, who, by interfering, has seen and heard too much, Valentine dead set on keeping his past buried — from his daughter and the people of London, who now look up to him as a quasi-monarchical ruler.

Stranded in the junkyard wasteland, aka The Great Hunting Ground, Tom is left to fend for himself. Very quickly, however, he pairs up with Shaw, who’s eager to get back to London — not to return home, but rather to take another stab at Valentine — our heroes having to contend with a string of dangers along the way, such as burrowing insect cities, kooky slave traders, and a resurrected, re-animated war soldier named Shrike (Stephen Lang via mocap), a hundred-year-old part-human, part-automata (think Terminator lite) hell-bent on eliminating Hilmar’s Shaw.

‘… this will require at least triple the effort.’

While Mortal Engines is a perfectly serviceable special effects entertainer, delivering in terms of big-screen bravado, the narrative is disappointingly tired and lax, the storytelling hugely sub-standard. Being a bildungsroman novel, the Mortal Engines book series focuses heavily on the moral and psychological maturing of protagonist Shaw, though we get very little of this here. With ex-art department and VFX guru Christian Rivers making his feature film directorial debut, Mortal Engines gives us those big, bizzaro moments but without any heft. Rivers’ extensive knowledge of effects certainly proves handy when it comes to wowing the audience; seeing multi-towered mobile cities, composed of steam-powered machinery, bend and split in a jumble of rotating gears and smokestacks is nothing short of spectacular. But why not give us a visionary story to go with these out-of-this-world vistas? Isn’t science fiction, as a genre, meant to push boundaries, dealing with radical, highly imaginative concepts and the consequences of such innovations?

That being said, Mortal Engines does have its flickers of gold, chiefly in Lang’s wholly digital man-machine Shrike, the last remaining ‘Stalker’ on earth. The scenes between Shaw and the green-glowing-eyed robotic menace, who, against all odds, has a shred of humanity left under his metallic exterior, are some of the finest, even if they’re few and far between — a missed opportunity. Too much is left unanswered, particularly questions surrounding the Old Tech’s purpose, past, and identity, while Shaw and Shrike’s complex, unconventional relationship, set to explore humanity in the inhumane, is all too skin deep, the brief backstory of Shaw’s upbringing, post her mother’s slaying, pointing at a darker, far more arresting picture — one we unfortunately never see.

‘I’m going to enjoy watching you die, Mr. Anderson.’

Character histories and the intricacies of the thousand-year-old conflict are significantly more stimulating than what’s transpiring up on screen. Secondary players are thinly sketched while entire story beats are ripped right out of other, superior films, which make the excellent design work (both costume and production) and cutting-edge VFX (thankyou Weta Digital) all the more exasperating. Instead of being on the edge of my seat, I was bored and frustrated, able to predict everything before it happened. The climactic clash plays out like a best-of Star Wars highlight reel, London a stand-in Death Star being fired upon by rebel pilots, blitzing the antagonistic city in boat-like airships with wings that resemble kites — so, spoiler alert, one can guess how it’s taken out. The film even has its very own ‘I am your father’ moment (rolls eyes!).

Spending a bulk of its 128-minute runtime traversing the landscape, filmmaker Rivers does, however, take us to some pretty breathtaking locales; the floating sky city Airhaven (a bustling air-balloon metropolis comprising of smaller vessels and crafts) is a particular standout — don’t discharge a weapon, though, or it’ll go down in a fiery heap. The static city beyond the armored Shield Wall (which plays a pivotal role in the film’s finale) is also quite stunning. Still, a lot is left awfully vague.

Not much can be said about performances, either, but our stars (most of whom are relative unknowns) do give it a good crack. Hugo Weaving, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), while chewing up scenery, delivers the most nuanced turn as the film’s power-obsessed baddie Thaddeus Valentine — he is, after all, the most accomplished of the lot. Emoting under some genuinely convincing prosthetics, Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, An Ordinary Man (2017), makes for a solid #MeToo-era leading lady, imbuing the red-scarfed, face-scarred heroine with a hint of Katniss Everdeen (but a lot more pissed off), who’s flawed on both the inside and out; it must be noted, though, that the film version of Shaw is a lot less grotesque than her paperback counterpart.

‘Open Sesame’

Elsewhere, Misfits (2009-11) alumni Robert Sheehan is rather one-note (and a bit miscast) as audience surrogate Tom, who, as a character, feels somewhat superfluous, having no function outside of expressing confusion and asking expository-type questions? He does, however, manage to land a couple of good lines. Lastly, gatecrashing the proceedings at around the midway mark is South Korean singer-songwriter Jihae, who looks super-cool blasting through baddies as aviatrix Anna Fang, a red-trench-coat-and-sunglasses-wearing, shotgun-wielding spy (think The Matrix’s Neo only more androgynous) who works for the Anti-Traction League, a sort of rebel organization opposing the ravenous traction towns.

Presumably set to kick-start a new franchise, Mortal Engines more or less bogs the property down in its opening lap — bit of a shame, I know. Given the talent assembled here, this one should have been better, the whole thing far too mediocrely executed. Still, I’d be keen to see the proposed follow-ups (or at least the next installment), which, when considering the groundwork, do have potential, especially in terms of ‘beefing up’ the narrative and expanding the dark, despairing dystopian milieu. Having already lost a ton of cash, though, I fear that this $100 million WingNut-produced blockbuster may suffer the same fate as 2007’s so-so received The Golden Compass.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Mortal Engines is released through Universal Pictures Australia