Jackson has turned Philip Reeve’s dystopian adventure novel into a tiringly frenetic and derivative fantasy-adventure movie
Co-written by Jackson and Walsh (you may remember their “Heavenly Creatures” and a couple of Tolkien adaptations) with frequent collaborator Philippa Boyens, from a sorta-I-guess-must-have-been YA novel (it was published by Scholastic in the States, I see) by Phillip Reeve, “Mortal Engines” begins with the usual voiceover informing us how “that Ancients” destroyed Earth’s civilization in “only 60 minutes,” using bad and terrible weapons technology, and how now the world itself is unmoored, as predator cities scavenge the globe for what’s left of its resources.
How this translates into visual terms is that whole, or at least partial, world cities now are mobile, going around on giant tank treads. How this engineering feat was achieved is not addressed. Anyway, London, which we still largely think of as genteel, is hauling ass and hunkering down on a much smaller “Romanian mining town,” hoping to steal its salt. On that town is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a teenage girl looking to take revenge on London’s power engineer (or something) Thaddeus Valentine for killing her mom.
London’s own Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a young historian building up a collection of “the Ancients’” weaponry (the Ancients, in case you’re missing it, were us) the better to dispose of it so as to study war no more, is initially a Thaddeus fan. But once Tom gets too close to Hester’s secret, down London’s garbage chute he goes, the better to find love and adventure with the feisty, reticent Hester. This move, among other things, allows Thaddeus access to the weapons storehouse, which will abet him in constructing a Brand New Superweapon.
Said story’s various components are introduced so haphazardly they can’t help but elicit titters, but even if brought into the picture differently, Shrike, intended as a poignant reminder of What It Is To Be Human, is a terrible idea terribly executed. I know Lang has probably been cooling his heels Down Under waiting for the “Avatar” sequels to start shooting long enough that he’s gotten antsy, but I wish he’d found a better way to waste his time. Even by the lower standards of kids’ stuff, this movie is laughably portentous and kitschy, and gets progressively worse, what with the heavy-handed introduction of the ethnically diverse rebel flyer team and the Dalai Lama lookalike leader of the Asian territory Thaddeus intends to bulldoze.
But it looks great, right? Not really. Directed by Christian Rivers, a longtime art director for Jackson, the overall look asks the question, “are you sick of Steampunk yet,” and for me, yeah. Never mind that the whole concept of the movie is like someone decided to take Terry Gilliam’s “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” way more seriously than it was ever intended. I did like the near-cavernous tread tracks that Hester and Tom had to run around in on their Way to Love.
Mortal Engines was originally a YA dystopian adventure novel from British author Philip Reeve, published in 2001, the first of the “Mortal Engines quartet”. Among its many fans is Peter Jackson, who has now turned it into a tiringly frenetic and derivative fantasy-adventure movie, co-producing and co-writing the adaptation with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Making his directing debut here is Jackson’s former storyboard artist and visual effects supervisor Christian Rivers.
The film is basically a steampunk Star Wars, with a bit of low-octane Gilliam and Gaiman on the side. By the end, in fact, the resemblances to George Lucas’s great creation become so distractingly obvious that it is difficult to credit that it isn’t some kind of intentional homage.
We are in a post-apocalyptic world, the Earth having been ravaged by a “60-minute war”, which has created a devastated landscape. In some places are what are called “static settlements”, but the land is roamed by moving cities, “traction cities”, which have somehow attached tank-track wheels to the soil underneath them, and now clank about in a sinister and predatory way, like Stephenson’s Rockets of evil, swallowing up lesser mobile communities, enslaving their populace, using the buildings for fuel and most importantly of all, scavenging for “low tech”: pre-digital machinery and technology of the sort which, however battered and rusted, can still conceivably be fixed and put to work, specifically for warlike aims. The idea is a little like the aggressive flying island Laputa in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or Howl’s Moving Castle, the children’s book by Diana Wynne Jones, which was turned into a Studio Ghibli animation by Hayao Miyazaki.
The scariest traction city is London, or perhaps “London”, because this city is obviously a smaller version of the real thing, and features a Las Vegas-style amalgam of its most famous tourist landmarks dotted about: a replica St Paul’s with red telephone boxes, a couple of the Nelson’s column lions, etc. This is the seat of empire, the kind that has no need to strike back, because no one is strong enough to strike against it in the first place. It is policed by various uniformed groups who look like constables, Beefeaters or droogs. The captain of this quasi-urban warship is effectively Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), though he appears notionally subordinate to the city’s mayor Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide).
The charming, charismatic but sinister Thaddeus is attacked by a disfigured assassin with a personal grudge against him: this is Hester, played by Hera Hilmar, who is to make common cause with the story’s initially hapless but stout-hearted young hero, Tom (Robert Sheehan), a young apprentice who discovers a dangerous secret about Thaddeus. When both Hester and Tom are expelled from London, a new figure enters the story: Anna Fang, played by South Korean music star Jihae, who is the badass leader of that group which must always crop up in YA dystopias: the “resistance”. The “resistance” is there to create the open-ended narrative possibility of battles won and lost, important for extending the single YA story into a franchise.
There are some lively things about Mortal Engines, and the performances are game enough. Yet in all its effortful steampunkiness, Mortal Engines isn’t a film which is particularly exciting or funny, and the idea of the “traction city” is a stylistic and visual design tic that you just have to take or leave. There is no point in wondering exactly how the colossal engineering feat of putting a city on wheels and moving it about was achieved, especially in an avowedly tech-impoverished age. This film’s engines are spluttering.
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of futuristic violence and action)
Stars: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving Directed By: Christian Rivers
Written By: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh
In Theaters: Dec 14, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Feb 19, 2019
Runtime: 111 minutes
Studio: Universal Pictures