Jared McMillan // Film Critic
As moviegoers, there is a common denominator in what drives us to put down some cash to watch a flick: entertainment. While there is no shortage of reboots and sequels to help satiate that need for amusement, even bigger interest occurs when something new comes into play. For example, what if there are massive cities driving around trying to swallow smaller mobile towns to acquire their resources, and it’s from the Oscar-winning team of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy? That’s an easy investment. Or, to quote PhilipJ. Fry: “Shut up and take my money.”
That is the base description for MORTAL ENGINES, which is based of the series of novels from Philip Reeve. Set in post-apocalyptic Europe, the movie follows Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) on a quest for vengeance against the man who killed her mother, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Thaddeus acts as second-in-command in London, which is now a wandering metropolis looking to survive. He also is behind a secret project with the city’s engineers that threatens to change the course of history once again.
After an assassination attempt goes awry, Hester is joined by city slicker and historian Tom (Robert Sheehan), and the unlikely duo embark on a tale of survival and uncovering the truth, both about Hester’s past and London’s quest for domination, or, as they call it, Municipal Darwinism. Along the way, a subplot opens up concerning Hester’s relationship with a resurrected man named Shrike (Stephen Lang), who stalks her in order to kill her off. Can Hester avenge her mother while also stopping London from obliterating everything in its path?
The visual presentation of MORTAL ENGINES is a jaw-dropping spectacle. Details that show with every shot keeps the audience glued to the screen, with each observation occurring in time with the story. Due to the destruction of the world, there is no real-world technology as the entirety of the movie has a Steampunk aesthetic. In fact, they do show our technology as a tool to frame the onscreen world, as Tom discusses “Old Tech”. The cities are remarkable in set design. In a wide shot of London, you can see their class system in levels as the top exudes a cleanliness that fades down the city.
Every set or scene before joining the resistance known as the Anti-Traction League is grimy and mechanic, a cold lifelessness surrounding Hester and Tom to reflect a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Hester is even stalked by death in the form of Shrike, who looks like a combination of the Mummy and the T-100. Directed by visual effects artist Christian Rivers (in his feature film debut), it’s clear that his eye focuses on the details that make the scenery practically burst from the frame. The actors are more than game to help make this world come alive.
However, it’s safe to say that something went wrong in writing the movie, as it goes from welcome world-building to fanboy homage mixed with head-scratching editing. Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, who penned all LORD OF THE RINGS films, there seems to be a disconnect as the story regresses into YA fiction. There’s nothing wrong with hinting at that agency, but the story errs by turning Hester and Tom’s relationship into the focus, when it introduced Hester’s vengeance as the focus. Also, if there is something destructive happening, do not neglect the sense of urgency in the situation to go into soul-searching dialogue. The editing also has a problem with cutting past dialogue; it cuts after they finished talking to just show the character staring off-camera. It’s hard not to assume that something might have happened to the story during production and this was the result.
Regardless, MORTAL ENGINES is something that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, so it’s a great move to put it on IMAX screens. Absorb everything that is presented on the silver screen, and it will be a fun time at the movies. That’s where the investment lies, and that is how the audience’s investment should be as well.
MORTAL ENGINES is now playing nationwide.