Director: Christian Rivers
Screenwriters: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, based on the eponymous novel by Philip Reeve.
Runtime: 128 mins.
Australian release date: 6 December 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 5 December 2018.
Set in a distant dystopian future, when life as we know it has been completely disfigured by the Sixty Minute War, Mortal Engines rolls onto our screens in a mass of metal and movement that is quite overwhelming. Based on the first novel of a tetralogy by British author Philip Reeve and the directorial debut of Peter Jackson protégé Christian River, it is presumably a harbinger of films to come. Jackson, credited here as producer and co-writer, knows the value of franchises, having directed both the highly successful, and highly lucrative, Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Assuming, and it’s a fairly safe assumption, that Mortal Engines is a hit, you can expect to see the three remaining Reeve books filmed over the coming years. And then there are the three prequels in the Fever Crumb series, so we could be in this post-apocalyptic world for some time to come.
An ominous narrated prologue explains that, “Sixty minutes is all it took” to annihilate the planet. The ruined Earth is now the domain of mobile cities, some vast and massive, some quite diminutive, roaming the land on tracks and wheels. Under a system labelled Municipal Darwinism, the larger ones prey on the little ones, capturing them for their resources, the natural world having been been totally destroyed. When the film opens, the small mining town of Salthook is being run down by the metal monster London. One of the captives, a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), whose face is disfigured by a vivid scar, attempts to assassinate Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, in full Agent Smith mode), the Head of the Guild of Historians, saying, “This is for my mother, Pandora”, but Thaddeus is saved by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an apprentice historian friendly with Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George). After a chase through the bowels of the city, both Tom and Hester unexpectedly find themselves outside London, in the ‘Hunting Ground’, and are reluctantly forced to collaborate in order to survive the predators that scour the wasteland. When the pair is picked up by another small town, Speedwell, overseen by Orme Wreyland (Mark Hadlow), it looks like they’ve been saved. Speedwell is not what it seems and they’re soon in peril once again. Their plight brings them into contact with Anna (Jihae), a leader of the Anti-Traction Resistance who commands an airship, but before they are safely out of harm’s way Hester’s past catches up with her in the form of a Stalker called Shrike (Stephen Lang), a killer man-machine hybrid with whom she shares significant history.
What a trip! This steampunk vision mashes up movies like Mad Max, Star Wars, Blade Runner and Avatar with the Gormenghast books of Mervyn Peake and a bit of the dark animations of the Brothers Quay. Credit must be given to Dan Hennah’s production design and the team of creatives responsible for the art direction of this epic production by Peter Jackson and his usual co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. And, of course, Christian Rivers, for keeping it all together. They have stepped up into another realm that is even more visually enthralling than Jackson’s previous franchises. It makes for compelling, and somewhat unnerving, viewing as Simon Raby’s cinematography captures the shocking state that Hester and Tom encounter in the blasted environment beyond the confines of the Tractor Cities. On the down side, Junkie XL, who wrote the excellent Mad Max: Fury Road score, goes a bit too ‘big’ with his music this time and, unfortunately, it becomes overbearing and intrusive on occasion. The script, too, falls away in the last third. One viewer was overheard to say it was a bit like a relationship - thrilling at the start but losing some of that excitement the longer it goes on.
Combining the genres of fantasy, adventure, thriller and science-fiction, Mortal Engines is nonetheless a fantastic reminder that the future doesn’t look too promising as long as world leaders continue to ignore the need to cease the destruction mankind is inflicting on Mother Earth. I, for one, will be waiting for the second instalment.