Review: Mortal Engines

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I’ve seen so many overblown, overpriced franchise movies this year that have disappointed me, it is nice to watch something entirely new for once.

Set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, where civilisation was almost completely destroyed and the shape of the world was forever changed by a cataclysmic event. Settlements now battle for what little resources are left in an irradiated wasteland, these settlements now travel freely around on gigantic wheels.

Debut director Christian Rivers has only previously worked in the art departments of major studio releases, such as all of the Lord of the Rings movies and the recent King Kong remake. In fact, he has worked on nearly all of director Peter Jackon’s movies, leading to this film’s most glowing endorsement: it uses Jackon’s production department, as well as a screenplay written by Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh (the screenplay writers for the Lord of the Rings).
So while Mortal Engines has a man cutting his teeth behind the camera, there’s a lot of pedigree being poured into it from behind the scenes.

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As one would expect from an art director, Mortal Engines is most assuredly a style-over-substance affair. Luckily, this reviewer enjoys that sort of thing.

Based off the book series of the same name, written by Phillip Reeve, the film follows the life of one Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) a nomadic young woman with a desire for revenge. Her target is an individual in command of one of the deadliest, most powerful settlements roaming around the wasteland: London. Her past will return to haunt her, and her reluctance to work with others will be tested.
The film is a rollercoaster of action. Running at just over two hours, it never really stops. Our characters are hurled from one dangerous scenario to another; the film opening with the mountainous city-vehicle of London chasing down the settlement Hester is aboard. This leads to her assassination attempt on Hugo Weaving’s character Thaddeus Valentine, and then into a head-over-heels chase through the engines and city-destroying furnaces of London.
Indeed, in this world, the settlement of London effectively eats other settlements.

Visually, the film is quite a treat. With the gigantic scale of Del Toro’s Pacific Rim mixed with Mad Max‘s post-apocalyptic setting and a dash of Young Adult fiction sensibilities, all expertly realised by teams who brought Middle Earth to life. Seeing the mobile representation of London is awesome; like someone had taken models of all the major city monuments and glued them onto a monstrous set of tank treads. It is ridiculous, but also wonderfully unique. As well as some of the smaller settlements, and the tiniest world building nuggets suggested by showing how different people survive in this new world. Aesthetics are distinctly “steampunk” science fiction, a great deal of rusting metal and brass fixtures, talk about ancient technology (read: what we have currently) far superior to what they have.

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The performances weren’t especially strong. Hugo Weaving is doing his thing, and everyone else is acceptable for the material and under the guidance of a new director. There isn’t much to write home about. Story and pacing, the film does a lot with very little time. Saying the concept is intriguing is an understatement; there is definitely a lot more to explore which the budget and time restraints could not cater for… From the start, audiences are expected to run with the story, with little exposition to explain why. Plot lines and character developments are rushed, motivations are on the superficial side.  One may be convinced to pick up the books after watching! There certainly feels like there is lore and interesting world building concepts left at the wayside.
Perhaps the biggest example of this is the character of Shrike, an unstoppable android assassin who is after Hester. A great visual, great concept and ultimately very moving storyline, but it is quite fleeting, and almost topples the already stacked premise of moving cities.

Do not be surprised if there is some extended or director’s cut version released on DVD/Blu Ray. The film certainly feels like it needs some more padding.

Overall, it is a CGI action fest. There are some great visuals and ideas, concepts that you’ve never seen on the big screen (and probably won’t see again). It would have been great to learn more about the world, beyond fleetingly edited cutaways or rushed expositionary dialogue.

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