Director: Christian Rivers
Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Stephen Lang
Running time: 128 minutes
In the aftermath of a devastating conflict dubbed the “Sixty Minute War”, entire cities have been mounted on wheels and motorised; roaming the barren landscape and (quite literally) gobbling up smaller towns for their resources. Tom (Sheehan), a young historian from London, enjoys both his work and his home. That is, until he meets Hester Shaw (Hilmar): a mysterious assassin with a score to settle.
A precious, powerful piece of jewellery; a journey towards a towering gate; a big fuck-off battle to determine the fate of the Earth; and the line “The World is changing”.
There are Peter Jackson shaped tire tracks running all over Christian Rivers’ big-budget, apocalyptic-adventure film, Mortal Engines. But, given Rivers’ long-standing collaboration with Jackson, and the fact the man himself both produced and co-wrote it, it shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise.
But, even if you remove Middle-Earth’s main man from the equation completely, the intriguing high-concept premise of Mortal Engines – a future of moving civilisations laying waste to anything and everything in their path – loses very little of its pulling power.
Adapted from the first of four novels in Philip Reeves’ series, Rivers wastes little time in thrusting us into Mortal Engines’ world of smoke and metal. Before the film’s title has even appeared on screen, we bear witness to a behemothic London mercilessly hunt down and ingest a rickety old Bavarian town whole. It’s a rapid acceleration up through the gears that is as poignant as it is exhilarating: a global catastrophe may have made London’s low emission zones and postcodes redundant (rent prices will undoubtedly still be sky-high, though), but its propensity to act as a visual metaphor for predatory capitalism is very much still alive and kicking.
But less-than-subtle allegories aren’t the only treat for the eyes, here. The vast reaching landscape on offer is a thing of wonder. From dank, decaying, scavenger-infested wastelands that scream Mad Max, to airborne communities veiled in cloud, Rivers confidently shows off his Jackson-trained eye for brilliant, ambitious world-building. Each new setting bears a distinctively Jackson-esque visual stamp and is full to the brim with character and detail. Even London, under the deafening grumble of cranking metal and beneath a shroud of thick black smog, strikes an impressively austere figure; one that harks back to the days of the Industrial Revolution.
But if Mortal Engines’ exterior is rich and intricate, it’s nuts and bolts feel far less oiled. Narratively, it’s a fairly generic, by-the-numbers affair centring around a handful of rather thinly drawn conventional caricatures evading capture and babbling on about “Old Tech”.
As lowly historian Tom, Sheehan makes the most out an innocuous, if not slightly drab everyman; while Weaving is little more than suitably sinister as one-note villain Thaddeus Valentine. Largely silent for the film’s first act, Hilmar’s Shaw is at first absorbing, but quickly assumes the role of familiar vengeful hero once her tragic backstory is laid out in all-too neatly packaged flashback.
There are exceptions elsewhere, of course. Jihae is having a blast as the ultra-slick, ass-kicking, Matrix-esque resistance fighter Anna Fang; while Stephen Lang’s intimidating cyborg, Strike, is layered with a welcomed, but all-too under-explored complexity that, were it given the time, would go some way to balancing a film severely lacking in depth. In the end, despite its frantic action set-pieces, Mortal Engines’ lack of enticing character focus means it never shakes its predictable, pedestrian pace.
In the bygone age of Kevin Costner sporting fish gills and drinking his own urine, we witnessed an entire world floating on water. Now, we have cities on wheels and jokes about drinking one’s own urine. It promises much, but Mortal Engines quickly takes the action-adventure path well-trodden. Destination: bland blockbuster.