Mortal Engines is a film almost a decade in the works, made primarily because Peter Jackson didn’t want to lose the rights to Philip Reeve’s series. And I can’t blame him. The film’s opening battle shows that Mortal Engines will be a feast for the eyes—thanks in no small part to the work of VFX artist-turned-director Christian Rivers. Unfortunately, that’s where the praise ends.
Fans were treated to the first 25 minutes of Mortal Engines at New York Comic Con, introduced by Lord of the Rings star Andy Serkis himself. Directed by Rivers, and written by Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, and Fran Walsh, Mortal Engines tells the story of a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) who boards the giant moving city of London in search of the man who killed her mother, London historian Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). This one moment triggers a series of events that threatens to destroy the world for a second time, but ultimately ends up saving it.
The film opens on the Universal logo—which normally I wouldn’t acknowledge, but in this case, it was cleverly used to represent the “Sixty Minute War” with purple-hued bombs going off in various locations around the globe. This is the work of MEDUSA, the dangerous, world-killing weapon that’s now become part of London’s collection of antiquities (which include deities presented in giant statue form as Minions—yes, those Minions). Historian-in-training Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) has a whole stash of dangerous weapons like this in his office, afraid they’ll get into the wrong hands after a slew of thefts. So, of course, he pulls them out to show Thaddeus’ daughter Katherine (Leila George) in full view of an eavesdropping bully, because he’s an idiot and the plot needs to move along somehow. But you don’t care about that—and neither does the film, for that matter—you care about the moving cities. And holy shit, they look cool.
The first 10 to 15 minutes is dedicated to a palpable high-speed chase where London, a so-called predator city, invades a trading post that’s made up of several smaller towns joined together, including the mining town where Hester is staying. This thrills and delights London’s elite, who gather at the city’s edge to watch the “sport.” It’s a game to them, and one they desperately want to win.
The towns and cities all look fantastic, spitting up smoke and dirt as they make their way across the slowly recovering landscape, giant tire tracks marring the ground behind them. I was especially amazed at how the movie showed the towns splitting up, a perfectly constructed mess of gears, bolts, and smokestacks spiraling over themselves as they folded up and sped off in their respective directions. It’s clear that Rivers’ experience as a visual effects artist, including on Lord of the Rings, The Lovely Bones, and King Kong, has come in handy, as he knows precisely how to weave and move in the chase’s largely digital space.
London sets its sights on the mining town, something Hester seems to actually be in favor of—although it’s hard to tell, as she doesn’t really emote even without the giant red cloth covering the scar on her face. And even though the town fights bravely, including sacrificing its precious haul of salt to gain speed, they are overrun. The mining town is absorbed into London and promptly crushed into fuel to keep the city afloat, though it won’t work for long. The age of the predator cities is dying, as there are fewer and fewer towns to prey upon.
Thanks to a pretty dumb “hurry hurry!” sequence where Katherine quickly helps Tom get down to the furnace to save some relics, we get a bigger look at the city of London. It has a strict caste structure, where the elite live up top in adorable London flats and the lower classes toil near the bottom. While down in the furnace area, Tom basks in Thaddeus’ unintentionally bored praise while Hester lurks in the crowd, knife in hand. She walks over to Thaddeus and stabs him in the gut, saying it’s revenge for the death of her mother. Hester then runs off, being pursued by Tom because he’s an idiot and the plot needs to move along somehow.
This results in a ridiculous chase sequence that reaches The Hobbit levels of implausibility. The two of them weave through the mining town as it’s being torn apart by giant chainsaws—the force of which should’ve hurtled them right into the oncoming blades, but nope. They’re fine. Debris and sparks are flying everywhere as they Mario Jump over one hurdle, then the next, and yet the two of them are never even grazed. There comes a point where Tom is about two feet from a monstrous rotating smasher that’s on fire and about to cremate his face. Never touched.
And well, you’ve seen the rest in the trailers. Hester tells Tom about her mother, then plummets outside the chute, involuntarily followed by Tom because Thaddeus is a dick. And, you know, Tom’s an idiot.
I left the preview feeling mixed about Mortal Engines. Visually, the movie looks stunning—that initial chase sequence is dripping with style, even if the follow-up was so absurd I actually heard people laughing near me. But the story and characters barely made a dent—especially Weaving’s Thaddeus, who seemed to be on phone-it-in mode the whole time. I never got a sense that the people in the story were necessary, or even wanted at times. Things felt like they were happening just because the plot needed them to, so we could get to the next chase sequence, not because they actually mattered.
I guess we’ll have to wait to see how the rest of the movie pans out, but if it’s like what we’ve seen already, I think the best part will be over before the story’s begun.
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