Set in a world many thousands of years in the future. Earth’s cities now roam the globe on huge wheels, devouring each other in a struggle for ever diminishing resources. On one of these massive Traction Cities, Tom Natsworthy has an unexpected encounter with a mysterious young woman from the Outlands who will change the course of his life forever.
ActorsStarring: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang, Colin Salmon, Mark Mitchinson, Rege-Jean Page, Menik Gooneratne, Frankie Adams, Leifur Sigurdarson, Caren Pistorius, Sophie Cox, Aaron Jackson, Joel Tobeck, Stephen Ure, Kee Chan, Yoson An, Andrew Lees, Kahn West, Sarah Peirse, Mark Hadlow, Poppy Macleod, Terry Norris, Calum Gittins, Megan Edwards, Peter Rowley, Nathaniel Lees, Paul Yates, Beatrice Joblin, Lee Tuson, Shane Rangi, Jason Whyte, Nick Blake, Simbarashe Matshe, Royden Davys, Richard Mills
It sounded so promising; a fantasy adaptation with a screenplay by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who together also wrote the screenplays for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A small caveat – they also did so for the Hobbit trilogy which was a lot less engaging but still ‘ok’. But then again, the three of them also worked together on King Kong (2005) which was pretty good, so surely all in all Mortal Engines must be in good hands.
But alas, under the auspices of first-time director Christian Rivers (who amongst others was an uncredited storyboard artist on all above-mentioned movies by Peter Jackson), this movie fails to deliver. There are certainly some things to enjoy during the two-hour sit it would take you to tick this movie off your watchlist. The world building is actually pretty good. In a post-apocalyptic time some 1000+ years into the future, cities have largely become mobile to be able to hunt for scarce resources. A mobile city? How does that work? Well, simply put, you put the entire city on wheels. To make it a bit more efficient you build them up in layers – so as we are introduced to London in the opening sequence, we find it consists of at least seven layers with St Paul’s at the top, and City Hall takes up a fraction of the level below it, so derived from that my guess is that all in all this ‘London’ must be some 500 meters wide by 300 meters high and 700 meters long (for simplicity you can use the same numbers in yards). On wheels. That will take a lot of energy just to move it around. And so we see London hunting down smaller towns around it and ‘ingesting’ them for their resources. Municipal Darwinism it’s called in this world.
The cgi and cinematography of these types of scenes is lovely to watch. Grand, complex, action-filled, fun, overall quite impressive. There are a few scenes where the cgi for some reason looks very fake – I found these scenes quite jarring as it really took me out of the movie and you start to think that the lighting isn’t right, and it looks like an indoor set, and once you start watching for more green screen fakery you will then of course find it. Luckily this disappears again once that particular setting is left behind.
The bigger issue however is the story. At a high level it is about London hunting for resources working up to an epic battle. At a more human level it is about people and their relationships in this unwelcoming wasteland, and in particular a tale of revenge. There is a decent arc for the main protagonist Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), but it seems everyone else is only there to progress her storyline; which in itself could be fine if she were a Mad Max or Rambo type who hates everyone as much as everyone hates them – they’ll make their own way. Hester is not Mad Max though; she is a lot more humane than that, whether she likes it or not. The problem with the script however is that with the exception of her long-time protector Shrike (Stephen Lang), no one else has any depth in their (back)story/character so the behaviours and loyalties that the script requires to progress Hester’s arc are handled rather amateurishly. I don’t know if that is down to this script or whether the source material (a Young Adult novel by Philip Reeve) took similar shortcuts, but it keeps you from caring about any characters – including even Hester herself.
And then as one loses interest in the story and just sits there for the pretty pictures, something else starts to first irk and then grate. Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL, who also scored Mad Max Fury Road, Batman vs Superman, 300, Divergent and Deadpool among others) delivered a mixed bag score for this movie. You can often hear the grand orchestral swell which at the right moments in the movie sounds fantastic, but then it seems that these ‘epic’ moments are connected together with constant, overly loud, terribly generic, action movie synthesiser music that just never lets up and often drowns out any more sensitive moments there could and should be in the movie, and then seems to start to run over into the more epic battle scenes as well.
I just realised I haven’t even mentioned Hugo Weaving, who plays the lead antagonist Thaddeus Valentine. Well, now I have; it’s not exactly one of his more memorable roles.
In summary: Great opening, pretty pictures, an increasingly unengaging storyline, and an off-putting score. There are three more novels in this series, but I trust Peter Jackson will not be getting another $100m budget to have second go at this world.