For a few months now I have been watching the trailer for Mortal Engines. Unaware of the novel series it is based on there was just the trailer to get excited about. And the fact it is being produced by Peter Jackson, and that it stars Hugo Weaving.
Mortal Engines is set in a future world where a post-apocalyptic society moves around in giant cities with tracks on them. That is where things get weird, but in this world cities hunt each other and each city has a strict hierarchy. So the strong prey on the weak – similar to any other time in history.
Familiar, but refreshing as well
Those are the familiar tropes. Add to this a young woman seeking revenge on an amoral scientist, a young man seeking adventure who ‘nearly’ always tries to do the right thing. Add to that a cyborg who seeks to hold on to memories form a previous life and you have the basic ingredients of a Sci-fi / Fantasy movie that is sure to boggle your mind. And it does not fail at that.
Mortal Engines is based on the first book by author Phillip Reeve and just like every other Peter Jackson production is was filmed and produced in Wellington New Zealand. Mortal Engines stars a whole slew of characters actors in supporting roles, but it is the young leads: Hera Hilmarsdóttir and Robert Sheehan that have to portray a new version of Luke Skywalker and princess Leia.
Hera Hilmarsdóttir stars as Hester Shaw, the young woman seeking revenge upon scientist Thaddeus Valentine for murdering her mother. Normally you could feel the plot in front of you as her motives start to become clear. In some ways you will be proven right. Tom, from the traction city of London, decides to help Hera when he finds out what Valentine plans to do with weapons tech he has obtained.
And yet, nothing is straightforward in Mortal Engines. What follows is movie over 2 hours length in which both the heroes and villains prove to have many layers to their motivation. Sadly, this causes a problem with the running time and not every plot line is adequately resolved.
That said, it is the world of Mortal Engines, just like with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, that make up for most of the flaws. If you are a fan of books by Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross you will definitely like the crazy world of traction cities hunting each other down. Its a mixture of steampunk and possible reality.
Director Christian Rivers has proven he can master setting up a complicated and alien world that is at the same time very recognizable. I think special recognition is in order to Hugo Weaving as Valentine and Stephen Lang as Shrike – the tormented zombie cyborg.
Mortal Engines is not without its flaws, and some of them are significant. Several of the characters, such as Katherine (Valentine’s daughter) and Bevis are almost entirely absent from the second half of the film. Their b-plot already detracted at the start but Katherine’s difficult relationship with her father had exciting prospects. Sadly, the b-plot fails in not unspectacular ways that should warn future writers and directors of adapting a story.
The second half of Mortal Engines is definitely its weakest, especially the final act which resembles Star Wars A New Hope to a degree but cannot match its quality.
That said, despite the negative sides, Mortal Engines has a lot of charm. The setting and diverse characters make this film feel like an 80s fantasy film you know is destined to become a cult-classic.
Despite its flaws Mortal Engines is an enriching experience to watch and certainly one of the best holiday movies you could watch this year.