What They Say:
A mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw, emerges as the only one who can stop a giant, predator city on wheels devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy, an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang, a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the novel series by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines got a lot of attention with its first trailer and that Peter Jackson was producing on it while also helping on the screenplay. The original novel came out through Scholastic way back in 2001 and spawned three sequel works over the next few years before digging into the prequel side of things. The film is an ambitious project for a first-time director with as many effects as there are in it but Christian Rivers comes from the special effects world and worked on pretty much all of Peter Jackson’s films, including the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit. So it’s easy to see a good shepherding kind of approach with Jackson here as Rivers shifts into something more expansive.
Like a lot of films coming from young adult novels you really do have to steer clear of certain aspects of reality in trying to get from point A to point B. Taking place about a thousand years in the future after the sixty-minute war reduced much of the world to ruin, there are no real nations anymore but rather mobile cities that expand and consume everything, be it resources or smaller “village” style mobile cities. The focus here is through part of what was once Europe as a land bridge had opened up from England where the London city has now crossed over. It’s in a phase where it’s beginning to struggle to really sustain itself and is attempting to find a way through the wall that protects Asia known as Shan Guo. There’s a split in the leadership over how to do it and there’s a layer of ordinary citizenry that are just frustrated with how everything is going and those that love the spectacle of consuming these small cities and their worker-resources.
There’s a decent ensemble cast that builds here as we get to know both sides in a decent enough way. The London side is given a good bit of attention early on where we see a historian-apprentice known as Tom (Robert Sheehan) frustrated by how everything is going and some of the social/class structure of it all. He’s very good friends with Katherine Valentine (Leila George), the daughter of Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who is acquiring a lot of ancient tech in order to deal with the wall and establish a new way of doing things. That he’s using the weaponry from the war that ended everything isn’t a surprise and it fits well for someone who sees this as the end days coming up unless something radical is done – but not radical enough to change how they actually do anything. Rather than listen to the anti-tractionists and figure out a way to survive on the land itself, it’s going to be progressively worse.
Everything goes south for the folks in London when a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) attempts to assassinate him when she finally makes her way aboard London. Hester’s story is spread out throughout the film as we see her past, her connection to Thaddeus, and through the growing relationship with Tom as events cause him to be cast out into the wild where the two have to survive while being hunted. The dynamic between the two works pretty well even if it is fairly standard but I was a bit disappointed as it leaned a bit more into romance than I thought it should toward the end as it didn’t really feel necessary to bring that into the film. I do like how the pair play off each other, though, and Hester comes across well as more and more her story is told, particularly with Shrike (Stephen Lang) that’s introduced later.
The film plays to a familiar idea and I was reminded of certain elements of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind at times. There are a lot of things you have to accept happening in a thousand years to end up like this, which isn’t beyond belief, but the scale and power of these mobile cities are things that are just monstrous and it doesn’t quite land in a lot of ways, especially just in how utterly deafening they would be. There’s also a detour to an aerial city that, while I can understand why they did it, really just left me cringing at the whole concept when there are so many other things that could have been done in the realm of reality. All of that worked to introduce more for Anna Fang (Jihae), a leader of the Antitractionists that has been looking for Hester for years. The resistance side is as varied as one would expect and it plays well when we see the scale of what they’re doing and actually protecting.
The story moves at a very good pace for something that’s just over two hours but it doesn’t provide for a lot of time to really just settle down and reflect on things. It’s intent on moving forward just like the cities have to and when we do get the quieter time it’s almost always while everything else is moving. I really loved the subplot involving Shrike and Hester’s past with him but it essentially just introduces a Terminator-style character into it all when there could have been better focus elsewhere for the story at hand, giving more time across the board. But I do like the ideas of things that have survived or are unusual in a future world like this that I can’t be too bothered by it. It’s an area where the special effects are largely well done as well, making for some pretty good material and up close and personal action.
Mortal Engines is the kind of film where I suspect I’d enjoy the book more simply because it would be able to flesh out all the things that I think needed to be done better in the work here. Christian Rivers has a solid handle on everything and as a debut, it’s very strong with what it’s doing as the scale is right, the action is smooth, and it has a really good sense of stuff. A lot of my issues are things that just bothered me when I know they shouldn’t really be looked at too closely for a number of reasons. It’s a very fun two hours as an action/adventure piece that takes us to a place that hasn’t been seen on the big screen like this before and the technical elements bring it to life in a fascinating way. Everyone puts in a solid performance and knows exactly when to chew scenery and when to dig into something more personal. It may not be the most memorable film out there but it’s definitely a fun experience.