Mortal Engines roars into action with so exhilarating, if wildly chaotic, an opening that expectation cannot help but hit an early high. This is, after all, a production billed as being from the makers of Lord of the Rings. Whereas such vibrance is retained in the film’s pace and visual spectacle, however, the fluctuating energy of its storytelling can’t help but slightly disappoint.
It was Peter Jackson himself who optioned the Philip Reeve book this is based on, and he who originally planned to bring the adaptation to life. And yet, despite the sticky presence of Jackson’s fingerprints all over the screen – as producer – it is his VFX disciple Christian Rivers who sits at this helm. His regular writers – Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens – are also on board, as is Middle Earth cinematographer Simon Raby. It shows. For all its faults – and there are many – Mortal Engines looks great. Vast green planes are set in juxtaposition to grimy, oil-fuelled interiors, while the story’s mechanical structures chug with an inventive magnitude. Indeed, Jackson’s talent for world building translates well to Reeve’s seemingly steampunk and Robert Louis Stevenson imbued adventure and there’s admirable ambition in the expansive sets and CGI vistas that envelop the story. What a pity that such backdrops are not better served.
Though it would be wrong to call Reeve’s plot limp, Rivers’ translation to film suffers from landing in the midst of a dying era of young adult dystopian theatrics. Set a thousand years in our future, the film is preceded by a gravely narration revealing that the world as we know it has fallen fowl of the ‘sixty minute war’. Modern technology is now a thing of the past – smart phones are housed in museums – and a phenomenon known as ‘municipal Darwinism’ has seen the great cities of the world uproot from terra firma to globe trot on engine-powered caterpillar tracks. Further still, a dearth of natural resources has driven the biggest cities to literally consume small towns and dissect them for parts. The biggest and nastiest of these cities is London: a towering mass, fronted by the Union flag and topped by St Paul’s Cathedral. Whilst those on London’s lowest tier are slaves to its machine, the elites on the highest plot the creation of an ultimate weapon; one that will render the city unstoppable.
As with any fantasy blockbuster worth its salt, a rising resistance is fronted by orphans and idealists. Here, they’re a likeable, if innocuous, quartet, haplessly tugged through their own story by escalating events. Robert Sheehan is the most inessential as Tom Natsworthy, the book’s central protagonist but second fiddle in the film, whilst the strength of Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar is distilled by the watering down of her character. In the book, Hester Shaw is hideously distorted and fierce of heart; in the film, she has a designer scar and lacks fire. Though the pair have a frosty start, it’s no great difficulty to guess where their arc is headed.
Hugo Weaving is the film’s biggest name, cutting a swathe figure as Thaddeus Valentine, but it’s Stephen Lang’s Shrike that provides its sole memorable character. A resurrected causality of war, Shrike is part skeleton, part machine, green eyed and of menacing physique. When not looming large as a threat to Tom and Hester, Shrike is a cyborg who benefits from a surprising depth of emotional investment. Much like Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old – one of the features that stole his attention from this one – an anti-war message feels tangible throughout Mortal Engines and is delivered with commendable passion.
While there’s just about enough flair in Rivers’ film to keep his confident action flowing, not to mention a strain of very sharp wit to ease quieter moments along, rather than raising the film’s bon vivre, such instances serve better as a hint of what this could have been. With too many over-familiar dramatic beats, immortal this is not.