MORTAL ENGINES. Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang. Directed by Christian Rivers. 128 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction themes and violence).
A mere glimpse at the marketing effort behind ‘Mortal Engines’ should tell you just how desperately the folks at Universal Pictures are hoping that this film will launch the next ‘Lord of the Rings’-sized franchise. Every trailer and TV spot makes mention of Peter Jackson, the venerable filmmaker who co-wrote, produced and directed all six of New Line’s Tolkien adaptations. Here, he is involved in the former two capacities, yielding the director’s chair to his protégé Christian Rivers, who variously served as a storyboard artist, visual effects supervisor and splinter unit director on Jackson’s previous features. The involved talent aside, there are plenty of other similarities between the two properties, like their epic scope, complex worldbuilding, flashes of horror and their archetypal hero’s quests. It’s easy to see then why Jackson and his partners were attracted to the project, and this is reflected in the finished work too. It’s not the instant classic that ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was back in 2001, but it’s a confident first outing for Rivers, aided in no small part by the well-oiled production machine that Jackson has established in New Zealand, not to mention an enjoyable Hugo Weaving performance that brings some star power to proceedings.
The story is set in a dystopian future governed by Municipal Darwinism. After the world was all but destroyed by quantum energy weapons in the “Sixty Minute War”, surviving cities and towns were forced to go on the move to survive. These roving settlements are powered by huge engines that propel them across vast wastelands in search of resources. As the inclusion of the word “Darwinism” suggests, this system operates under a “survival of the fittest” logic, as larger cities hunt, capture and devour smaller communities. Captured towns are evacuated of survivors, who are taken in as refugees, then dismantled by workers to either be repurposed or incinerated in their hungry engines. London, one of the largest cities left in the world, runs down a small mining settlement called Salthook in a thrilling opening set piece, propelled by Tom Holkenborg’s bombastic score, a style the composer perfected working on the extended chase movie ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.
While most of London’s residents cheer on their successful hunt, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a young museum apprentice, is down in the guts of the great city, preparing to salvage what he can from Salthook. After several instances of recovered 21st century technology going missing, Tom is worried; as a budding historian, he knows that said tech was once responsible for the cataclysmic Sixty Minute War. So, to avoid it ending up in the wrong hands, Tom has taken it upon himself to hide away as much old tech as he can. As labourers strip Salthook for parts and fuel and Tom tries to gather its meagre technological offerings, the Head of London’s Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), arrives to greet the newly processed additions to their city. Among these refugees is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young woman who has planned and plotted her arrival on London for years. She is there with one burning purpose: to assassinate Valentine, the man who killed her mother when she was just a child.
A quick-thinking Tom intervenes and stops Hester before she can complete her mission, before chasing her through the belly of the city. Just before she escapes, Hester reveals her bombshell about Valentine’s past to Tom, so when Valentine arrives on the scene first, he pushes Tom off the moving city to keep his secrets safe. The rest of the film follows Tom and Hester’s quest to thwart Valentine’s villainous plan, and they join forces with a former friend of Hester’s mother, the infamous Anti-Tractionist and talented pilot Anna Fang (Jihae). Their growing group soon realises that Valentine’s plot extends far beyond murder and may even threaten the Anti-Traction League’s final stronghold, the nation-state of Shan Guo. This fortified citadel has been impressively imagined and detailed by production designer Dan Hennah. Hennah blends the colourful hodgepodge of his design for Sakaar in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ with the boxy, warren-like structure that he brought to Minas Tirith in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and the third act battle that seamlessly blends this set with the spectacular special effects used to create London and the wider world is an utter treat for the eyes.
This film was based on the first of four books in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series for young adults. Peter Jackson wrote the screenplay with regular collaborators Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, and they have hewed reasonably closely to Reeve’s wildly imaginative, heavily steampunk-inspired source material. Thanks to this trio’s long involvement with director Christian Rivers, you can feel Jackson’s fingerprints all over his directorial style. Cinematographer Simon Raby, who worked with Jackson and Rivers on the first Tolkien trilogy, pulls consistently from the ‘LOTR’ bag of tricks, adding scope to epic sequences with lengthy camera swoops and accentuating moments of horror with tilted camera pushes. These spooky touches come predominantly when a mysterious hunter called Shrike (impressively performed in motion capture by Stephen Lang) enters the narrative. While he’s trying to tie up his loose ends, Thaddeus hears of this Shrike, a “Stalker”, that shares his goal of eliminating Hester. Stalkers are resurrected men rebuilt around metal bodies – basically the Terminator but with rotting human flesh laid over its metal skeleton – that possess a laser focus and are nigh unstoppable. Thanks to some shared history (which injects a surprising amount of heart into the story), Shrike is set on killing Hester, which only complicates her already hectic schedule of saving the world (or at least what’s left of it).
Frustratingly, Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar struggles to breathe life into Hester until the final act. For most of the film she’s a little undefined, unwilling to embrace Hester’s more abrasive tendencies (she’s an anti-social scavenger by nature). Because of this, when Tom and Hester grow closer, it feels more like an inevitability than an interesting plot turn, and if Hester was always going to gel with anyone that engaged with her, forgoing the special alchemy that should have bought her and Tom together. That said, when she matures into full on heroine mode for the final showdown, Hilmar grows into the character, and her wins register far more strongly for it. Across from her, leading man Robert Sheehan is an appealing presence. One can see the Irish actor maturing into the next Hugh Grant, with his shaggy albeit handsome looks and slightly bumbling charm. His Tom is warm and likable and so out of his depth, which helps propel the underdog nature of their little resistance. Jihae, a Korean rock musician based in New York, was a doubtlessly cool choice for Anna Fang, even if her acting sometimes gets overshadowed by her effortlessly cool costuming. But no one can steal the screen from Hugo Weaving when he’s on it. Thaddeus Valentine is not a teeth-gnashing monologuer or a one-note villain (two things that we know Weaving is pretty good at by now). Valentine is a driven inventor and a passionate patriot, who could easily have been the hero in another story. In fact, his daughter Katherine (Leila George) moves through the London-set plot threads too, which adds an intriguing fatherly side to the character. A worthy villain is always terrific fuel for a story, and Weaving keeps these engines firing until the final credits.
With plenty more story to be told in the remaining three volumes, ‘Mortal Engines’ is a strong statement of intent from the filmmakers and talent involved. Your appreciation of it will vary with your appreciation of Peter Jackson’s other filmmaking output, such is his deep involvement in this film. But if you like your blockbusters fantastical, then chances are that you’re already a big fan of Jackson’s, and Rivers’ first directorial effort should suit you nicely.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 6.