Christian Rivers (who began his career working with LORD OF THE RINGS helmer, Peter Jackson) makes his directorial debut with an expensive $100-$150 million, no-holds barred blockbuster, MORTAL ENGINES based on the young adult novel of the same by Philip Reeve.
There is a lot of background concept to take in as the film begins. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world, ravaged by a “Sixty Minute War”, which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes, and other instabilities, a Nomad leader called Nikola Quercus (known as god Nicholas Quirke by the time of the book) installed huge engines and wheels on London, and enabled it to dismantle (or eat) other cities for resources. Think Transformer cities like Studio Ghibli’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE come to life. If you admire the mechanical special effects of the TRANSFORMER movies, the effects here will blow you away. The technology rapidly spread, and evolved into what is known as “Municipal Darwinism”. Because scientific progress has almost completely halted, “Old Tech” is highly prized and recovered by scavengers and archaeologists. Europe, some of Asia, North Africa, Antarctica, and the Arctic are dominated by Traction Cities, whereas North America was so ravaged by the war that it is often identified as “the dead continent”, and the rest of the world is the stronghold of the Anti-Traction League, which seeks to keep cities from moving and thus stop the intense consumption of the planet’s remaining resources.
When the film begins, the predator City of London is after a small mobile mining town called Salthook, constructed to fold itself up like a hydraulic steampunk Transformer and drive away at the first sign of danger. London is a monster of a predator city compete with artifacts like St. Paul’s Cathedral and The London Eye. Salthook is captured and it inhabitants consigned to low level jobs while given the basic necessities. The dystopian future offers lots of metaphors for today’s Trump-era America which the script by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens indulges a little.
The audience is quickly introduced to the hero of the story, a rather hard-working geeky, but by no means unattractive, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an apprentice at the Museum of London, specializing in the technology of “the ancients” (people of the 21st century). An ancient artifact is at one point revealed humorously to be two minions. The villain of the piece is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a vaguely populist authority figure with an unusual interest in collecting rusted 21st century power sources to build a special weapon in order to rule the world. Nothing will stop him including murder. His innocent daughter Katherine (Leila George) slowly learns the truth about her father after a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) emerges from a crowd of refugees to kill him.
The film goes nowhere from here but continue with chases and battles culminating in the climatic battle of London vs. the good guys. A welcome breather is introduced in the form of notorious outlaw, Anna Fang (Jihae). Karen actress John has the great acting skill of providing one expression while wearing those stylish shades that survived all the battles of the world.
As MORTAL ENGINES go, it is an exceptionally well conceived CGI movie, top marks in looks and special effects. But too much of a good thing can even lead to boredom. Think the extended sequence of King Kong destroying New York City in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG. One must know when to stop and tone down a little. MORTAL ENGINES is spectacular in its first 20 minutes in structure, look and story telling but at the film’s 90 minute mark, one knows that the epic battle is about to take place which means another 30 minutes of film running time to trudge through.
One has to admire at least the immense and difficult effort of visualizing the dystopian YA novel on screen.