Debutant director Christian Rivers is a long-time mentee of Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), conjuring masterful visual effects on just about all of Jackson’s films. But in taking on a script co-written and produced by Jackson, Rivers must face the director’s task of wrangling a vast cast of characters, CGI and all the world-building that a dark and grungy steampunk dystopia demands. In this case, less would have been more. Do not, under any circumstances, expect a Lord of the Rings!
Just like The Hunger Games and Divergent series, adding to the long list of young adult dystopias, Mortal Engines is set in a society built in the aftermath of a nuclear-type bomb. Here too, we have the Haves and Have-nots. They survive in unconventional cities that move around on massive steamroller wheels. Always.
In what must be the weirdest opening of a young adult movie yet, London, in this generation is a huge, creaky beast of a machine a la Howl’s Moving Castle, chases after a small Bavarian mining city. It opens a mouth-like hatch, swallows the city and its people and takes their fuel. Captain of London is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), though he appears notionally subordinate to the city’s mayor Magnus Crome (Patrick Malahide). Thaddeus is attacked by a disfigured assassin Hester (Hera Hilmar) with a personal grudge against him. Tom (Robert Sheehan), a young apprentice who discovers a dangerous secret about Thaddeus is immediately banished by Thaddeus. This leads to the cat and mouse chase. Thaddeus wants Tom and Hester dead. Hester wants Thaddeus dead. Tom is shattered about what he learns about the world!!
Mortal Engines lacks a connection to its characters. They pop in and out of the story as we lurch between locations. Words and phrases like “Tractionist”, “Infusion converter cell” and “Stabilise the isotopes” add smog to a story of villains and heroes that brings few surprises.
Even though the landscape and the giant mobile cities are a visual treat at first, the action set pieces to follow needed to be a lot better than they are. James Cameron’s Avatar had a run-of-the-mil story and screenplay, not a lot of character development either, but it dazzled you visually to a point that the worldwide audience made 2.7 billion dollars for the makers. The key to the success of Avatar was it gave the audience a visually enticing offer that they could not refuse.
Mortal Engines isn’t a film which is particularly exciting or funny, and the idea of the “traction city” is a stylistic and visual design tic that you just have to take or leave. There is no point in wondering exactly how the colossal engineering feat of putting a city on wheels and moving it about was achieved, especially in an avowedly tech-impoverished age.
Mortal Engines is not unwatchable. But, be warned it will be a drag in many places during its entire 130 odd minutes. Yet, it is a cinematic treat and if you are a sci-fi fan, in all honesty, they do offer something new in terms of concept.
This film’s engines are spluttering!!