8 December 2018
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.
Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving
As Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy are my favourite films of all time, I have to wince at the constant namedropping of him (and writing partners Fran Walsh and Philipa Boynes) in the promotion of Mortal Engines, a new post-apocalyptic adventure story based on the 2001 book series by Philip Reeve and directed by Jackson’s longtime storyboard artist Christian Rivers. I wince because this is the team behind LOTR, and are proven to be not just capable, but infused with cinematic talent. Even The Hobbit films, whilst by no means great, managed to stay afloat enough to be called decent. But that trilogy’s massively troubled production can be attributed to some of its significant downfalls. Another story for another article perhaps. My point is, Mortal Engines hasn’t had those production issues (at least not as publicised anyway) and yet it still fails. It has a good film buried somewhere deep inside its metal clockwork heart, but what’s been produced becomes as interesting as an engine manual.
After a cataclysmic event known as the “Sixty-Minute War”, settlements and cities are put onto wheels and roam a wasteland in a constant search for resources. London is the biggest and baddest of these “predator” cities and continuously consumes smaller mining towns. It’s leader Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving: Captain America, The Wolfman) is building a devastating new weapon to destroy the “Shield Wall”, which protects an alternative civilisation of “static settlements” in Asia. The only person capable of stopping him is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar: Anna Karenia) who is a fugitive with a personal vendetta against Valentine.
Mortal Engines actually kicks off startlingly well with an exciting and visually compelling chase scene between the Goliath, steampunk city of London and a small (compared to the roving London anyway) mining town called Salzhaken. Much of this chase has been shown in various promotional materials, however, when experienced in full, it’s a fantastic opening scene that succeeds in setting up its world visually as well as getting your blood pumping. The sense of gargantuan scale is well captured and awe-inspiring. If the film had continued at this standard, we may have been looking at the best blockbuster of the year. But even at this point, I started to notice some problems. The sound mixing was all wrong. The music was much too quiet and sound effects didn’t have the weight they needed. Whether this is a case of bad sound mixing from the filmmakers or the fault of the cinemas sound system I cannot be sure but is worth noting in case.
The real troubles begin after its extravagant opening. The visual effects might look fantastic, and its production design might be a treat to witness, but it’s Mortal Engines characters that are painfully lacking in charm. Instead, they’re as dull and rusted as one of the many humongous cogs powering London. Hugo Weaving looks to be on autopilot as the villain Thaddeus. Newcomer Hera Hilmar is fine as our protagonist Hester Shaw but really offers nothing other than a generic moody hero. Robert Sheehan (Mute, Geostorm) plays Tom, a Londoner who is thrown out of the city by Valentine and allies himself with Hester and the resistance. But again, he is just a basic sidekick with little personality. I could list further, but to be fair to the entire cast the script they are reciting offers nothing of substance and can only be described as drab. Only “bit part” characters inject any semblance of life into the picture; a cartoonish slave trader, a hermit and his busty wife, and so forth. I kept wishing the film was about them instead of Hester Bore and her mission to save the world.
There’s a bizarre story strand that steals the majority of the middle act of the film in Mortal Engines too. We learn that Hester Shaw was raised by a reanimated cyborg called Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang) after her mother died, and she made a sensitive promise to him. Hester breaks this promise for reasons I won’t reveal, and subsequently, Shrike is pursuing her with the intention to kill. The way in which this story is thrown together in flashbacks and long excerpts of exposition is crippling. The whole thing feels like an afterthought, which is disappointing because it concludes with the most emotional scene in the film – If only I cared.
The rest of the film plays out just as you’d expect, culminating predictably in a big explosion-filled battle, all of it meaningless due to its disengagement with character. It’s shot and designed well enough, but if you fail to invest in the characters or the story like Mortal Engines does, then you’re running on empty.
A world rich with potential
Impressive visual effects
Generic fantasy plot