By Preston Wilder
Here’s another Young Adult novel (actually a series of novels) turned into a $100 million behemoth – but Mortal Engines the book was written in 2001, so it didn’t have details like the crypto-Brexiteer villain ruing the day that London ever rolled across the Channel to Europe (“Biggest mistake we ever made!”). There are two dramatic engines – did you see what I did there? – behind Mortal Engines. One is the witty sensibility which includes such sly details, mostly on the margins. The other is the need to make use of that $100 million, meaning spectacle, cluttered narrative, and extended action climax.
That said, the spectacle is also rather witty. Written and produced by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, the film does a decent job of world-building – the outlandish premise being that, in the usual dystopian future, entire cities have now become mobile, taking the elaborate road-machines of Mad Max: Fury Road one step further. When we first meet London it’s trundling across the Euro-countryside, topped by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in pursuit of a “small Bavarian mining town” which it duly catches and ingests, using it as fuel for its seething urban innards. Hidden among the Bavarians is Hester (Hera Hilmar), a young woman seeking revenge; her target is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a powerful man in the city – but she’s forced to team up with Tom (Robert Sheehan), a callow researcher at the London Museum.
That museum harks back to the old days, the days of the Ancients, just before the world was destroyed. Its treasures include a display of Minions (“our American deities”) and an exhibition devoted to the “Screen Age”, an obscure historical age with very few records existing, just a display of broken tablets (“It may well be that people forgot how to read and write”). This is all good fun, and the visuals are eye-catching too – lots of piled-high turrets and swathes of lead piping, giant pincers and various mechanical parts, this being the retro-futuristic genre known as steampunk (there’s also a nod to the floating cities in Hayao Miyazaki movies). Tom and Hester are cast out of London via a kind of whirlpool-shaped tunnel, joining an outlaw named Fang (Jihae) who wears John Lennon shades and flies around in a plane that resembles a large red insect. There’s a lot of production design in this movie.
Is production design enough? I don’t know if it’s ‘enough’ but it makes the film quite imaginative, compared to the usual soulless blockbusters – and it gets even better with the addition of ‘Shrike’, a skeletal-looking cyborg with glowing green eyes and bad teeth. Shrike is after Hester, having once been her guardian – but he also carries bits of other movie monsters, being obsessive like the Terminator and brought down by love like King Kong. The film, too, borrows liberally, culminating in a welter of clichés, from a ticking-bomb countdown to a Death Star flying climax out of Star Wars – not to mention another casually-tossed Star Wars reference which I won’t spoil, not that it matters.
Mortal Engines manages to be both very full and very empty. Neat visual touches and intriguing detail (what exactly was “the Big Tilt”?) can’t sustain it forever; by the end of the first hour, the plot has settled in familiar ways and we’re living mostly on incidentals, like the roly-poly cockney scavenger who (presumably) would once have been played by the late Bob Hoskins. He comes with a blowsy wife who makes disparaging comments about Hester’s scarred face – a reminder that the British Film Institute recently announced it will no longer be funding movies with a scarred villain. Are scarred people the new minority seeking full human rights? Will cinemas soon be pressured to cancel screenings of Scarface, as now happens with Gone With the Wind? It makes you wonder.
Very interesting – but of course irrelevant. When the mind starts drifting to thoughts of cinematic scar-ism, it’s a good sign that a film doesn’t really have one’s full attention. In the end, Mortal Engines is unlikely to leave much residue – or indeed launch a franchise, which of course is the more important question – but it has enough to be entertaining. There’s a human auction, a battle on an airbase in the sky, a chase up and down the mountainous furrows of a giant tyre, a striking low-angle shot of whatever nefarious thing Thaddeus and Co. are building in St. Paul’s – plus of course occasional sly details like that Brexiteer villain. At one point instructions are barked out to the mob, and a disembodied voice adds that “Children may be temporarily separated from their parents” – another topical touch that wasn’t, I assume, in the 2001 novel. I’d have preferred more of that, and less of the other engine.
DIRECTED BY Christian Rivers
STARRING Robert Sheehan, Hera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving
New Zealand/US 2018 128 mins