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Mortal Engines

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I can't recommend this. It's based on a YA novel by Philip Reeve, which I've had for several years but haven't read yet. The movie makes me less inclined to care about the book, but I'll give it a go to see how it compares. I acknowledge I'm not in the target demo for the book, but with Peter Jackson co-writing and producing the film, I had hoped to enjoy it. I'm not sure it would have helped if he had directed, although I suspect he did lend a hand in that department too. As it is, it was too big a responsibility for Christian Rivers' directorial debut. Most all of his previous work was in the art department and/or special effects divisions of Jackson's Wingnut Films and Weta Workshop. There have been four other books in the series, but based on brutal reviews and the lackluster box office so far, I suspect this will be the only film. The potential was there, but not realized, and it's becoming very difficult to mount a new genre film that is not tied into an already popular series. It would probably have worked better for TV, but that is also unlikely, not unless Jackson cares enough about the property to pursue it no matter how much the studio loses on this production.

[EDIT: I've read the book now, and reviewed, and have made minor edits to my initial comments here.]

The acting is also lackluster. Competent, but predictable, lifeless and emotionless, with an exception for one scene. The cast will be unknown to US audiences for the most part, with Hugo Weaving the only recognizable face for many. Or maybe it will just be his voice that is recognizable, since he looks nothing like Elrond or Agent Smith. It's possible Stephen Lang's only contribution was as voice talent, but he may have done motion-capture work, Shrike being a completely CGI creation. I'm familiar with a few others, but they're hardly household names. The lead character is Hester Shaw, played by Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar. She has a tragic backstory, and an unsightly scar, and is out to avenge the murder of her mother. [EDIT: Her scar is not as unsightly as described in the book, wherein she lost an eye and most of her nose when Valentine attacked her.] Her sort-of-but-not-quite-yet love interest is Tom Natsworthy, played by Robert Sheehan, whom I know from a show I didn't like and didn't watch for long, Misfits. He's slightly better here, but that's not saying much. Both of them are twice as old as the book characters they're portraying. The writing is clichéd and predictable, and it doesn't help that the basic premise is far-fetched and laughable.

It's set more than 1000 years in the future, and an unspecified amount of time after the "Sixty Minute War." Post-apocalyptic and dystopic for sure, with a steampunk flavor. For some inconceivable reason, cities are no longer fixed and stationary, they lumber across the landscape on giant wheels, tractor treads, or in some cases mechanical legs. The larger cities hunt down smaller ones, gathering them up in a giant maw in order to strip them of any usable parts. London is one such predator city, which has now crossed over the land bridge that used to be the Channel, and is rampaging across Europe. Weaving plays Thaddeus Valentine, a former scavenger/amateur archaeolongist, promoted to be London's Head Historian by the Lord Mayor (Patrick Malahide). Valentine has been obsessed with scavenging for old tech, convinced he can harness the devastating power of old, to eventually rule the world. [A bit of a switch from the book. Valentine did find the tech, but it was the Lord Mayor who was the principal villain who oversaw the reconstruction of the ancient weapon.] So, a dastardly villain, plucky heroes facing insurmountable odds, fortuitous run-ins with other plucky heroes who happen to have airships and formidable weapons. All we need now is an inscrutable old wise man to impart his great wisdom and we're good to go. And what do you know, there he is behind the Shield Wall in what looks like an ancient Buddhist temple. At first I thought the Shield Wall must be somewhere in the Alps, since it didn't take London that long to get there, but in the book, which skipped over weeks and even months, it was the Himalayas, so the Buddhist temple made more sense in that context.

So many narrow escapes and remarkable feats of strength and agility, even after serious injuries. On numerous occasions, with Hester inside the moving London, or Tom on a floating balloon city, or both of them in the city behind the Wall, places they had never been before, but they are able to make their way to where they need to be to make their escape, as they are being chased by people who know those spaces like the back of their hand. Rescues just in the nick of time, the heroes able to use machinery, or weaponry, or fly an aircraft they've never seen before. The movie is chock full of Mary Sues. One of the most illogical occurrences is when Anna Fang (Jihae) allows Tom to pilot her airship and dock it at the balloon city mere minutes after meeting him. At least they had specified he had some airship training, but it still didn't justify Anna's trust, especially for the docking sequence. As with the book, the opening sequence is the best part. Once beyond that the plot starts to break down, with many character traits and action sequences that are reminiscent of just about every other sf/fantasy film you can think of. It's yet another unneccesary, overblown special effects extravaganza, without the depth that could have created sympathy and empathy for the characters. For anyone who hasn't read the book, but might have liked the movie and is interested, please note that there are a few changes. The basic plot was intact, but the fate of certain characters have been switched. I rated it just 5 out of 10 stars on IMDb. That may have been too generous.

UPDATE: On DVD & Blu-Ray March 12.


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Christian Rivers

Fran Walsh
Philippa Boyens
Peter Jackson

December 14, 2018

Hera Hilmar
Robert Sheehan
Hugo Weaving
Leila George
Patrick Malahide
Ronan Raftery
Colin Salmon
Stephen Lang
Regé-Jean Page
Frankie Adams
Menik Gooneratne
Leifur Sigurdarson

Full Credits at IMDb

On DVD & Blu-Ray March 12.