Review - 'Mortal Engines'
Have you ever wondered what the peaceful, steampunk world of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle would look like if it clashed head-on with the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Mad Max? Well, wonder no more; Christian Rivers’ Mortal Engines provides us with a look at how that unholy matrimony would play out.
Mortal Engines takes place on Earth far into the future where giant, mobile “predator cities” roam the desolate landscape whilst gobbling up smaller villages for fuel. When Hester (Hera Hilmar), tracks down Valentine (Hugo Weaving) on London, a massive predator city, she attempts to kill him but fails. The mysteries between Valentine and Hester are slowly unraveled, along with a conspiracy within London that could have grave implications.
I cannot stress enough just how enthralling this world is. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. The concept of cities on wheels sounds ludicrous on paper, and it kind of still is when you witness it play out on the big screen, but Christian Rivers and co. embrace the concept and make it palatable. London, the massive predator city that gets the most exposure here is quite something to behold, and I could tell a lot of thought went into constructing this moving behemoth to make it seem as realistic as possible. On top of that, this film is never boring. The action sequences crackle and pop and the movie rarely slows down to take a breath, thus taking another page out of Mad Max: Fury Road’s playbook. The sheer spectacle and scope of the action and landscape of Mortal Engines alone is worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, the story isn’t the most compelling, save for a sub-plot that actually could have benefited the film more had it been the central focus. Mortal Engines basically boils down to a simple revenge story, which would be fine if the characters motivations were well-established. They’re not. It has been a common complaint that most of the productions Peter Jackson is involved in (he was one of the screenwriters and producers on Mortal Engines) tend to be a bit long-in-the-tooth, but Mortal Engines is the opposite. It’s lean-and-mean at one-hour-and-fifty-minutes and while that ensures that it never takes its foot is never off the gas, it also doesn’t allow the audience much time to get to know these characters passed their basic motivations. Credit where credit is due though: it ends on a definitive note and doesn’t tease a sequel. Wise for a movie that will likely bomb this weekend and not get a second shot.
In addition to its somewhat generic story, none of the performances in this film are particularly note-worthy either. The lead, Hester, played by Hera Hilmar is…fine. She’s got this tough-girl attitude that works when she’s not speaking but doing, but when she opens her mouth, it’s generally a clunky action-hero one-liner, which is probably more of a fault in the writing than Hilmar’s delivery. Still, she’s a passable lead and there are a few scenes where I began to feel something for her. On the other hand, her companion, Tom is an insufferable oaf for most of the duration. Played by Robert Sheehan, Tom is a bumbling idiot who is above everything else annoying. The performance isn’t bad per se, and he sort of reminds me of a value-mart version of Eddie Redmayne at times, but he still never added much to the story at all. Then there’s Hugo Weaving, who is hamming it up as much as he can in an attempt to salvage his devastatingly generic villainous role. He fails, but admirably. Thaddeus Valentine (Come again?) is the very definition of a throw-away villain with barely anything more on his mind than world domination and EEEEEVIL.
The most well-developed characters are unfortunately pushed a bit to the sidelines. Shrike, who is a mostly CGI character played by Stephen Lang, is absolutely fascinating, both in design and backstory. His part is well-represented but I could have used even more and would have loved it had the film been more centralized around him and Hester instead of Hester and Valentine. Finally there’s Anna Fang played by singer-songwriter Jihae. You would never guess that she hadn’t had acting experience because she’s actually pretty great as the tough-as-nails pilot and leader of the resistance, so much so that I almost would have preferred her as the lead.
Mortal Engines definitely falls short in some key areas, but it never collapses. The performances are mediocre-to-fine, and the story is fairly rote but still satisfying to a small degree and most importantly; complete. On the other hand, the action and world-building is top-shelf. Though the experience can ring hollow at times, the awe-inspiring visuals and the adrenaline rush of the well-executed and immensely creative set-pieces insured that my money was well-spent.