Christian Rivers (director)
14 December 2018 (released)
The palpable relief in the cry of ‘YES’ from a member of the audience after the film ended at the screening was devastating and encapsulated the experience of Mortal Engines.
Based on the book(s) of Philip Reeves, Peter Jackson has adapted them for the screen. It's story of a dystopian future that after a 60 minute war has decimated humanity and the terrain sending the world into a dark age. A dark age that sees them develop advanced technology that puts cities on wheels powered by huge engines 'traction cities' that gobble up or ‘Ingest’ (as Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) orders very seriously) smaller cities.
London is the mega 'traction city' trundling and capturing all that goes before it. Its aim is conquest though seemingly also to sate a baying population the way Roman emperors used the circus to satisfy the masses. There’s a vaguely satirical sliver running through the film that’s just totally overwhelmed by the effects.
The first ten minutes set the tone with London chasing the smaller towns. There’s something Pythonesque about this as Terry Gilliam was experimenting with this sort of absurdity in the 70’s with his animations and brings to mind the support film and the attack of that support film during the Meaning of Life, only on a much smaller budget and genuinely satirical.
The city is run by a mayor with his advisers and confidents and is to all intents and purposes ‘normal’ as people go about the daily life and routines. Operating at more privileged level Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) is a historian meets Valentine over a rare toaster, and in turn meets his daughter Katherine (Leila George). Valentine is greeting the population of the ‘ingested’ city and while doing so is attacked by the facially scarred Hester Hilmar (Hester Shaw). The attack fails and the subsequent chase through the city sees Hester and Tom fall out of disposal chute and out of the city.
They then set off a on a jumble of a mission to get back into the city encountering slavers, a Laputa style flying city and the people of the static settlements, another terrain that Valentine has set his sights on conquering. More and more characters are piled in and the story gets overloaded with secrets, motivations and backstory. The film struggles with very familiar tropes which requires a fleetness of eye to make this interesting and keep the audience’s attention and that is the main disappointment in Christian Rivers debut feature. He’s not helped by an unchallenging screenplay that manages to create in Natsworthy a character to challenge Rob Schneider’s Fergie (Judge Dredd) position as most annoying character, ever. Other than that the performances are solid and in keeping with the daftness of it all.
But the main problem with this overblown tosh is that the effects crucially fail to convey the world crushing heavy power of the London machine; despite the elaborate CGI there’s very little substance thus no tangible sense of size, weight and menace. So the sequences when London is bearing down on the smaller cities rather have the appearance of a Tonka toy chasing down a Dinky toy.