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.
My Take – In a time when every studio and filmmaker is busy prepping themselves for the next gritty reboot or to launch their own shared superhero universe, a release of blockbuster fantasy epic seems like a rare thing. Adapted from the first book in a series of four known as The Hungry City Chronicles from author Philip Reeve, a major factor which would tip a general filmgoer towards this film would be the involvement of filmmaker Peter Jackson, who produced and co-wrote this Christian Rivers directed film with his Lord of the Rings team of Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. And rightfully so right from its teaser, this film looked like an exciting prospect.
Combining the dreamlike flying-machines and detail of Studio Ghibli’s most fantastical fare with a steampunk environment and a scale that even Peter Jackson would be impressed with, this film clearly seemed unabashedly inventive and bright in a way that’s highly unusual nowadays. And without a doubt it is, in terms of pure visual invention, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before, but story wise, it is surprisingly quite clunky and run of the mill with recycled story-lines, paper-thin characters and laughably flat dialogue.
Sure, the lavishly made film is fairly successful in creating a steam-punk vision of a post-apocalyptic future, and contains enough eccentric beats along the way that it’s still a thrill ride until the very end, but akin to the small village vehicle that’s gobbled up at the start, the film is too heavy to move so fast so soon. Unwieldy, busy and lacking the charm that a first-film desperately needs to hook in an audience, the wildly ambitious film chugs along and spits and splutters to its climax.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future where Earth, after a sixty minute war, has now become a wasteland churned by mobilized ‘predator’ cities, with chief among them being London, a massive English tank-diorama topped by St. Paul’s Cathedral, who chews up static settlements and lesser traction cities to harvest energy and resources. The story follows Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a mysterious facially scarred young woman, who has only one goal in mind – to seek revenge on Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the Head of the Guild of Historians in London, for killing her mother. For his part, Valentine has a questionable vision for the future, one that ostracize just about everyone, including his own daughter, Katherine (Leila George).
Living in the shadows and using the right opportunity, Hester successfully stabs Valentine, but before the job is finished, she is interrupted by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a low-class apprentice historian of London, whose naïve attempts to impress his idol goes disastrously wrong. Flung out of the city, in a crazy world the duo are crippled with lack of resources, but when they discover that Valentine is building a giant weapon in order to attack the static cities, they realize they have to stop him at all costs, by joining Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw who is part of a resistance group known as the Anti-Traction League. Meanwhile, in order to stop Hester once and for all, Valentine releases Shrike (Stephen Lang), the last of an undead battalion of soldiers known as Stalkers, who were war casualties re-animated with machine parts, to go after her and set his own unsettled score.
While Peter Jackson may have produced and co-written the film, but directorial duties have been handed to Christian Rivers, his long-time visual collaborator, who is making his theatrical debut, and it comes as no surprise that the film boasts epic world-building; it’s certainly a feast for the eyes as he brings author Reeve’s steampunk spectacle to life, from the crowded, scrap-filled ‘Gut’ of London and the muddied crevasses left by traction’s caterpillar tracks to the decorated halls of the city’s museum, all of which are heightened by a superb score from Junkie XL. The minimum you want from a shiny new science-fiction / fantasy blockbuster is to be shown something you’ve never seen before, and this film has that in spades.
The concept of cities eating smaller towns is stunningly brought to life on screen, thanks to some truly extraordinary production-design work. The attention to detail is commendable, particularly in the design of London itself, while there are plenty of little touches that give the setting a lived-in quality, not unlike the dusty droids and vehicles of filmmaker George Lucas‘ Star Wars, a film whose influence is clearly felt throughout. There are sea-traveling prison towns on crab-like legs, small scavenger villages and a floating hot air balloon metropolis, while in the Asiatic east a static settlement sits behind a huge wall, and is presented as a fortified Shangrila. In a lot of ways, it’s easy to see why Peter Jackson decided to take on the source material and make it into a film.
The source novel is laden down with heavy exposition, literally reams and reams of world-building, and beneath that lies a story of a plucky young duo who are cast against forces beyond comprehension. Given how successful and ground-breaking ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was, it’s no wonder Jackson thought that he could repeat the process here. Making something that seems fundamentally in-adaptable is kind of his forte. There is no doubt the film is ridiculous, it’s excessive, and it’s oh so gratifying; in almost the same way that many war based games embraces their own silly lore.
Yet for all of its wonderful set and costume design, for all of its visual magic and artistry, this sci-fi turned steampunk universe is ultimately let down by the misfiring of storytelling, which has clanking dialogue, comedy and romance which barely register and is bereft of a sense of time or distance. While ‘Lord of the Rings’ showed how this brilliant this team was at wrangling rambling story and massive worlds into an understandable narrative. That skill seems to have deserted them here, as every plot turn raises more questions and provides very few answers.
Lots of characters are introduced, and there’s action aplenty; but nobody’s home. But for all the visual effects, the story-line just felt stock-standard and lacked inventiveness. For a film that’s all about forward momentum and paces itself on this, it doesn’t give it a second to let any of the characters sit and develop. This, in turn, makes it extremely difficult to actually care about anything that happens. We’re shown flashbacks of characters’ early life, but it’s all cut and pasted together at such a breakneck speed that it just doesn’t register on an emotional level or a narrative level. While it’s at heart a simple revenge story, the mechanics are often deeply confusing and drearily humorous.
Hester’s backstory is baffling, involving a mother who was, we’re told, vital to those resisting the wheeled cities but also in a relationship with Valentine, neither of which is clearly explained. Valentine does all his scheming in secret, so people won’t realize he’s evil. But the residents of London are shown to be so bloodthirsty, shouting and cheering whenever they destroy a smaller city and not remotely objecting when he reveals his grand plan, that he may as well have been above board the whole time. There’s a zombie assassin that relentlessly tracks Hester, killing hundreds, because apparently likes her.
The plot is a distant secondary consideration to action set-pieces. There are so many gaps in the storytelling and so much reliance on chance and characters guessing things that it’s never even remotely absorbing or satisfying. It’s a beautifully designed world but no real life exists within it.
Despite determined efforts by the actors to provide emotional fuel, they’re too often squandered as grist for the towering spectacle. Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar makes a compelling lead as Hester, but her nominal central role is squeezed out of focus by a bevy of subplots and not particularly interesting characters. While Robert Sheehan‘s performance and character is confused that we can never decide if he is the awkward romantic lead or the comic support. However, Hugo Weaving, does his best with what he’s been given and the same goes for Stephen Lang, Leila George and Jihae – but none of it makes a bit of difference when they’re just rattling off their exposition-heavy lines without any kind of emotional context. In smaller roles, Colin Salmon, Patrick Malahide, Rege Jean Page and Ronan Raftery don’t get much to do either.
Perhaps we’re just meant to sit and enjoy the ride, seeing how this is a film about giant cities on wheels. Here’s a huge metaphor for industrial imperial powers seeking to exploit the untouched lands of the east. Here’s a lumbering machine of death, the last of his kind, keen on redefining life. And here’s a man kicking off a loose railing minutes after running around a facility with a bleeding stab wound. Perhaps it’s meant to be entertaining in its own, schlocky way, but by the time the credits rolled it all felt rather safe, sterile and, dare I say it, bland. Imagine that. I have the gnawing feeling that the film was rushed to tell a complete story, rather than risk building a trilogy that might fail at the box office. On the whole, ‘Mortal Engines’ is a disappointing fantasy epic which despite a fascinating world that deserves further exploration, is let down by its messy direction, clunky writing and predictable story-line.
Directed – Christian Rivers
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 128 minutes