DIR: Christian Rivers • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson • PRO: Deborah Forte, Peter Jackson, Amanda Walker, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Simon Raby • ED: Jonathan Woodford-Robinson • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Junkie XL • CAST: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving
The biggest worry for me going into this film was would my suspension of disbelief hold out? Fantasy it may be and that should be all it requires to buy into its rules for the duration, but would I be able to watch a city trundling around a dystopian landscape on gargantuan caterpillar tracks cannibalising other smaller cities and not keep thinking of Monty Pythons, Crimson Permanent Assurance?
I needn’t have worried; the high-octane opening showing a giant London on caterpillar tracks chasing a small Bavarian mining Village was presented with such straightforward sense of adventure and desperation that the snickers soon left, though now and again I did find myself thinking of what Mad Max might be like if it had been directed by Terry Gilliam..
Mortal Engines, based on the first of a series of books by Phillip French belongs firmly to the steam punk genre, where old-school Victorian values blend with sci-fi subject matter, normally set in alternative worlds. Mortal Engines is set in a far future after the Sixty Minute war laid waste to the world and a new order of scavenging evolved where travelling cities known as traction cities traverse the landscape living out of what they find left over from the past. We enter this world as it is on the verge of collapse, conflict has risen between the traction cities, notably London and those that have begun to resettle properly on the land in a place not unlike the mythological Shangri-La. Following a path of revenge against this backdrop is Hester (Hera Hilmar), who aims to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), an ambitious leader of the traction City of London. An unsuccessful attempt brings her to the attention of Tom Natsworty (Robert Sheehan), a young assistant in the city museum, who in turn realises that Valentine is not the great man he thought he was when he ejects him from the city because he knows the truth of Hester’s mission. Soon the two are in the wasteland making their way to god knows where while Hugo is reaching the completion of his master plan.
As would be expected of any film that has Peter Jackson’s (writer, producer) moniker attached to it, this is a sumptuous affair, beautifully realised in design and costume and featuring some dazzling effects. He may not have his name attached as director but it is obvious that his influence on the director, Christian Rivers, is significant. A lot of Jackson’s hallmark shots are up on the screen in this production.
It is unfortunate that the frenetic style that opens the film is maintained for the entire narrative. Characters are introduced at high speed and given no proper emotional weight, barring one or two of them. No one seems to really stop to take a breath, though some sleep is had along the way. Most surprising is that the writing from Peter Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, seems so formulaic and predictable. This may be because of the source material, I couldn’t truly say but even so, from what I have learned of the books the wealth of background detail that went into realising the world of the story in the novels is certainly not given enough credence here. The overarching plot stifles any characterisation from properly emerging. The characters for the most part serve their functions rather than have any real sense of an inner life. As the narrative and action escalates it finally descends into a sort of steampunk version of Star Wars.
Despite those negatives there is a lot of joy to be had from this epic adventure. If spectacle is what you are after, you will find plenty, even if it does go on a tad too long. At a time when most blockbusters are so busy setting up their sequels, it is refreshing that this film, though possibly hoping to be the first of a series, stands on its own as a narrative.