Movie Review: Mortal Engines

The reigning king of adventure fantasy epics, Peter Jackson (the LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT trilogies), is back but this time he’s not directly behind the camera. With MORTAL ENGINES, he’s given the directing job to his pal, Christian Rivers, who worked on the visual effects on a few of Jackson’s Middle Earth and KING KONG films. Jackson has, however, produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay along with his long-time collaborators, Fran Walsh (his wife) and Philippa Boyens. Given that heavy an involvement should bring the film more than a few bums on seats but with a reported budget of US$100 million, it has to take in at least twice that much at the box office to break even.

Based on the first of four novels of the same name by Philip Reeve (yes, sequels to this film are planned), MORTAL ENGINES takes place about 1100 years in the future after a cataclysmic event – known as the “Sixty Minute War” – caused massive geological upheaval. Now, the world is dominated by large Traction Cities that roam the planet, literally gobbling up smaller cities for their resources. Known as “Municipal Darwinism”, London lies at the top of this industrial food chain in the West. In the East, behind a massive and impenetrable wall, lies the city of Shangguo. On London (because it moves, after all), Tom Natsworthy (Irish actor Robert Sheehan, looking a lot like Justin Trudeau) is an apprentice historian who works in the city’s archives. After he witnesses Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, HACKSAW RIDGE; THE DRESSMAKER), the Head of the Guild of Historians, push the mysterious and facially scarred Hester Shaw (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar) off the city, he, too, meets the same fate. Now, stranded in what is essentially no-man’s land, the pair lands in the crosshairs of roving bounty hunters and ends up for sale to the highest bidder at a rogue’s auction. (Where have we seen that before?) Fortunately for them, they get rescued by Anna Fang (South Korean singer-songwriter-actress Jihae), a pilot and leader of the Anti-Traction League. Meanwhile, Valentine uncovers Tom’s secret stash of “old tech”, which includes a nuclear weapon. Installing it in the dome of St. Paul’s, he turns London east toward Shangguo and its wall. Only Hester, Tom and the Anti-Traction League stand in the way of Valentine and his steampunk Death Star.

Given Rivers’ experience, it’s not surprising that MORTAL ENGINES has strong art direction and visuals. There is a fascinating mixture of low and high tech in the vein of Jules Verne’s stories. On London, mammoth Edwardian era steam engines power the city where remnants of today’s architecture are clearly visible. Anna’s airplane is a cross between a dragon, a sampan and a biplane. That’s where the good ends though. Unfortunately, the story is highly derivative right down to the bomber jacket that Tom grabs before he jumps onto Anna’s plane. One late-film scene involving Hester and Valentine seems torn from the pages of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Even Hester’s name and her scar recall the character Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

As mixed a bag as this film is, it will still earn well over US$300 million. That means we’ll be seeing more adventures of Hester and Tom for years to come.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Thursday, December 13th at 8:30 am HK time!

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