Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan and Leila Valentine in Mortal Engines
Though Mortal Engines isn’t a very good film, you’ve got to admire the filmmakers for even trying. Adapted from book one in a series of four (you know what that means, folks: a saga!), the film is about predatorial cities — yes, as in big cities that hunt and consume other cities. Technically, it’s set in Europe, but judging from the Mad Max-evoking barren wasteland, the Europe we know now is long gone. Set about 1,000 years in the future, Mortal Engines offers an exciting if outlandish view of the future, but it gets so bogged down with character clichés and laughable plot reveals that it crumbles under its own weight. (Adapted by the Lord of the Rings trio (Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens), this first installment of Mortal Engines was directed by Christian Rivers, first-time director and longtime storyboard artist on Peter Jackson’s films.)
And yet for all its missteps, I did spend the first 10 minutes of the film in a state of joyful disbelief as I watched a chase sequence between the predatorial London and a small Bavarian mining town called Salthook. Panic floods the tiny town as houses and bridges fold away and non-essentials are thrown overboard in an effort to escape the jaws of London. This is a town that is used to being hunted and has evolved to prepare for it. London is massive in comparison, like Minas Tirith on wheels, with St. Paul’s Cathedral at the peak (how St. Paul’s survived 1,000 years, I have no idea). The city is laid out like a spot-on metaphor for classism: the wealthiest live at the top of London and enjoy ample space and blooming gardens while the poorest, whom we don’t really get to see, live within the guts. As London catches up to the Salthook, the captain leading the attack, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) makes the order: “Prepare to ingest!” That goofy line is one of the better ones of the whole film. Once the town has been swallowed, historical artifacts are salvaged and handed off to the London Museum and the rest is melted and used for fuel. Pretty routine, right?
But in this particular town, there’s someone out of place: a young woman with a bandana covering half of her face. She reveals herself as Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), and she’s here to avenge her mother’s murder. She approaches Thaddeus, stabs him in the stomach and escapes, pursued by Tom (Robert Sheehan), also an orphan who works at the London Museum. After Tom overhears Hester’s accusations of murder, Thaddeus pushes him down the garbage shoot moments after Hester jumps down there herself. This sets up the rest of the film, which is spent with Tom and Hester trying to get back on London.
The world-building is off to a good start, what with impressive and detailed CGI, but it’s the moment that characters are introduced that things start to go awry. What’s disappointing about the film is that it pushes all its political ideas of imperialism, classism and its vision of the future to the backburner in favour of age-old plot points. There are some fun and intriguing visuals, most notably a house that disguises itself to look like the rocky and muddy ground but moves like a centipede. The wooden dialogue might as well have been written by an algorithm, though there are clear echoes of The Lord of the Rings.
In terms of plot, Star Wars seems to have been the biggest influence (there’s a group of rebel pilots called the Anti-Traction League and a twist that had my theatre in stitches). Despite its arresting visuals, the film is never quite able to fully capture the scale of London compared with the smaller towns. We’re told that London is inhabited by thousands of residents, but the city only appears in a few shots. One of the aspects that made the threat of the Uruk-hai and Orc army in the Lord of the Rings trilogy so palpable was the sheer scale: the swooping shots rushing above the countless spears and mutated bodies holding them up high.
The two leads are likeable enough, but are limited by incredibly derivative dialogue. Anna Fang (Korean multimedia artist Jihae), the rebel with a warrant out for her arrest, hints at something deeper but she seems to be acting with the single direction of, “Just look badass, okay?” And as for Hugo Weaving, well, thousands of years later he doesn’t seem to have left Elrond behind.
Mortal Engines hits all the beats we’ve come to expect from a dystopian sci-fi but sadly all the good stuff gets gobbled up in the first scene by the Hollywood-industrial complex. (Now that’s a metaphor!) ■
The Mortal Engines opens in theatres on Friday, Dec. 14. Watch the trailer here: