By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Mortal Engines is a stunning steampunk world with gorgeous production design and more than decent action sequences thanks to the talented Peter Jackson, but feels rushed and falls short when it comes to compelling characters and a coherent story.
Directed by Christian Rivers and based on the first book in the popular series of the same name by author Phillip Reeve, Mortal Engines focuses on a post-apocalyptic world where cities are monstrous predators on wheels. After a smaller town is ‘ingested’ by London in the wastelands of Europe, young survivor Hester Shaw (Hera Helmar) teams up with local city boy Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) to take down notorious leader Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who’s reassembling an ancient weapon.
The production design and effects in this film are right up there with the recent Fantastic Beasts as being some of the best of the year, thanks to Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings production company Wingnut films. London is incredible to look at, complete with the lions from Trafalgar Square, and crowned by Saint Paul’s cathedral, which houses the ‘Medusa’ weapon that Valentine is very keen on rebuilding – a not so subtle reference to capitalism and the overwhelming influence of the church.
Cities and other vehicles tear up the central European countryside like a slightly greener and muddier version of Mad Max, and it even has similarly loud and quirky characters along the way – the ‘green’ tea drinking old couple on the caterpillar-like scavenger vehicle were a nice touch. There’s nothing revolutionary or compelling about our heroes though, despite Shaw’s backstory, which feels very Star Wars at times, there’s not a whole lot of time spent on really digging into characters. Jihae’s Anna Fang is the ‘cool’ addition to the crew, but that’s about it. Where is she from? Why is she fighting? And why is she wearing those ridiculous sunglasses?
Hugo Weaving’s Valentine is both charming and sufficiently ‘bad-guy’ and that will be enough to draw in majority of Jackson fans. The most interesting character is by far the undead and Terminator-like figure Shrike (Stephen Lang), whose neon green eyes and haunting introduction make your hairs stand on end. His pursuit of Shaw is one of the more compelling moments, and could easily have stood alone as its own film.
There’s too much here. TOO MUCH. Although it’s based on the first book and still manages to get most of it into a 2-hour run time, Mortal Engines becomes messy and characters redundant in that final half an hour. When the genocide begins, you start to question what the motivations behind it actually are? There could easily have been three films or even a series for this one book.
With all that aside though, Mortal Engines is a fun ride and packed to the brim with steampunk eye candy. It’ll be interesting to see where this franchise goes, or if it goes at all – there are four books in the series. I have no doubts that it’ll have a successful holiday season run though.